Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ten Days of Terror!: I am Legend; The Omega Man

Films: I am Legend; The Omega Man
Format: DVDs from Lasalle Public Library through interlibrary loan (Legend) and Sycamore Public Library (Omega) on laptop.

I don’t go to the theater that often, but I saw I am Legend when it was first released. I was hopeful, having seen the first two versions of Richard Matheson’s story, The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man respectively. I had hopes because this looked like a version that was going to really have the look of a truly apocalyptic situation. The other films had this in part, but not to the extent that this did in the trailers, and that’s something that was instantly appealing to me.

Unfortunately, this is my least favorite of the three versions of the story. It’s got the biggest budget by far and it would seem to have the most going for it on the surface, but like the other two versions, it punks the ending completely. None of the three versions have managed to get the ending to Matheson’s story correct, opting instead for something much simpler and much less interesting because of it. My disappointment here may simply be that I had much higher hopes for this one than I did the other two versions, so the failure is that much bigger.

The basic story is this—a doctor (played by an uncredited Emma Thompson) has developed a cure for cancer by re-engineering the measles virus. The initial results are very good, but the virus mutates, causing significant changes to the population given the cancer cure. The infected become something like a cross between zombies and vampires. They are evidently mindless killing machines (something definitely called into question later in the film), but are also significantly damaged by UV radiation, making them entirely nocturnal.

Three years after the initial outbreak, Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the only human resident of New York City. He spends his days in a variety of tasks. He hunts the wild animals that have taken over the deserted city, farms crops in Central Park, hunts the monsters that plague the city at night, and scavenges for food. He also works on a cure for the plague. It happens that he has survived this long in part because he is immune to both the airborne and contact versions of the virus. His research is conducted by capturing both infected rats and humans and testing various strains of antidote on them.

Of course things get complicated. Of course he’s going to discover that he is not the only person left, because we need to have a third act here. Neville eventually encounters a couple of survivors who rescue him from an attack. The pair is traveling to Vermont to an alleged survivor camp. The rest of the film concerns their interaction, Neville’s continued attempt to find a cure, and the final confrontation with the creatures.

I’ve already said that this is the most disappointing of the three versions of the story. This isn’t to say that they got everything wrong here. They didn’t. There are a lot of things done well. In fact, it’s really just the ending to which I object. For the first chunk of the film, there’s a lot that goes right here. Will Smith is a good enough actor in this type of film that he can pull off being essentially a solo actor extremely well. There’s a moment about an hour in that is Smith showing some real acting chops, finally reacting to the reality of being alone and starting to a little stir crazy. And then, after this, everything starts to go off the rails.

What’s really annoying here is that evidently an alternate ending was filmed that much more closely matches the Matheson story. So what happened? Did it test badly with audiences? Assuming it was done well, it would make the difference between this being my least favorite version of the story and the one that was the most accurate and clearly the most interesting. It’s irritating, because the first two thirds of I am Legend is done very well.

Why make this change? Why dumb down the ending? It’s so frustrating!

With a fixed ending, this would be a hell of a lot better. It wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but the problems would be a lot more acceptable. The biggest issue not tied to the third act is the CGI used to create the creatures. It’s obviously CGI and it’s not very good CGI. Practical effects would have been a lot more interesting. Additionally, I don’t like the feral version of the monsters. Each of the three versions of the story has very different monsters. The creatures in The Last Man on Earth, the creatures are much more like sentient zombies with some vampire characteristics. In The Omega Man, the creatures are clearly sentient, much closer to vampires. Here, I’m not entirely sure what they are. There seems to have been a desire to make their reality a shocker in the third act, and it doesn’t really work.

The biggest problem, though is that the third act injects a really stupid religious message. It’s the kind of bullshit “everything happens for a reason/God has a plan” crap that I objected to even when I was a religious believer. The minute a character starts talking about doing something because God spoke to them and that becomes even partially factual in the context of the film, I check out completely.

I remembered that I hated the third act. I’d forgotten about the Christianity portion of the film, which makes me hate it all the more.

As mentioned above, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend has spawned three different cinematic visions, all appearing under different names. The Omega Man is the second on, coming a spare seven years after The Last Man on Earth, yet feeling as if it comes from an entirely different generation. Part of that is the first film is in black-and-white and The Omega Man is in color. But there also seems like a complete sea change in terms of attitude and society as a whole. Where the first film is very much a traditional horror movie, the second is a true post-apocalyptic vision.

There are some problems with The Omega Man, though, and they go to the heart of the film. Chances are pretty good that you’re at least vague familiar with the story. A massive plague wipes out most of humanity. Some small percentage of humanity isn’t killed but is warped into something very different. Most of the surviving humans are something akin to albino vampires. They are hyper-sensitive to light and are virtually unable to come out during the day. They are also changed mentally, although their intelligence is unaffected. Led by a charismatic leader named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), these mutated humans call themselves the Family and spend their evenings destroying all traces of past technology and civilization as a religious ritual of cleansing.

The Family also spends a good deal of time hunting Neville (Charlton Heston). Neville, a former doctor and scientist, has developed a vaccine for the plague and is now immune. He spends his days driving out into Los Angeles for supplies and to hunt for the hiding place of the Family. At night, he fends off attacks from the mutants using the high-powered weaponry, technology, and electricity that they refuse to use.

One day out in the city, Neville encounters Lisa (Rosalind Cash) in a store. He tries to find her, but is instead captured by The Family and set for execution. He’s rescued by Lisa and Dutch (Paul Koslo), who live outside of the city protecting a group of children. Lisa’s brother Richie (Eric Laneuville) has contracted the plague and is slowly transforming into a member of The Family. Neville and Lisa take him back to his house to see if a serum can be developed from Neville’s blood.

So, in a lot of respects, The Omega Man works with the original story on which it is based, but there are some significant plot holes that make it problematic. We’re going to move very heavily into spoiler territory here, so is you haven’t seen The Omega Man and don’t want it spoiled, you should probably stop here. That said, the movie is 46 years old, so you’ve had plenty of chances to watch it before now.

To start, Neville’s house is not very well protected. Okay, the Family refuses to use technology in general and is extremely light sensitive, but that doesn’t change the fact that Neville’s house is ridiculously easy to assault, and they simply don’t do it until it becomes plot-relevant. We learn that this battle between Neville and the Family has been going on for two years, and Neville could be taken out in a couple of days by anyone with even a modicum of strategic ability. Seriously, he lives in a house surrounded by other buildings, and he has to sleep some time. Spend one night moving close to his house, holing up in the buildings nearby. The next day, since Neville goes out every day, move into his house. The Family is light sensitive, but it only causes them some pain, not any real damage. They all wear heavy cloaks and heavier sunglasses, and they could get in pretty easily no matter how sturdy Neville makes his ground-floor garage area. Seriously, for how easy it is for some of the family to get in during the course of the film, you’d think they could have pulled that off at least once.

Second, Lisa gets affected by the plague and she turns immediately. Now, that is explained during the course of the film. Sometimes people show symptoms for weeks and turn slowly and sometimes it happens all at once. But when she turns, she immediately becomes allied to the Family like she’s a part of some sort of hive mind. Okay, if they’re a hive mind, that’s fine, but that’s never established, and it clearly needs to be to make this work. Why is she suddenly a religious zealot?

A third issue I have with the film is the character of Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick). Matthias might be the leader of the Family, but Zachary is clearly the BAMF of the group and he’s not used nearly enough, and goes out far too easily.

The rescue of Neville from the Family doesn’t work, either. Dutch and Lisa set up a convoluted series of stages to this rescue, which includes stashing a motorcycle for Lisa and Neville to use in the getaway. The sacrifice of Neville is happening in a stadium, and the rescue is started by turning on all of the lights. Neville gets rescued…and they turn the lights back off. Why the hell do they turn the lights back off? And if it was that they didn’t have enough power to run them for longer, why the hell would the rescue involve them taking the motorcycle back into the stadium and into the crowd of mutants to get away? And isn’t it a damn good thing that Neville knew how to ride a motorcycle?

I like some of the elements of The Omega Man. I like that the Family isn’t the slow, stupid zombie/vampires from The Last Man on Earth and not the CGI man-beasts of I am Legend. I like how much it feels like a generational shift from the first iteration of the story. But it’s got some problems, and there’s no getting around that.

Why to watch I am Legend: Will Smith is a good action hero.
Why not to watch: The ending sucks both because it breaks with the original story and because it injects a ridiculous religious message.

Why to watch The Omega Man: In some ways, it’s the most interesting version of the original story.
Why not to watch: A lot of the plot doesn’t really work.


  1. I am Legend is one of those movies that was in and out of production limbo for years before it was finally made. At one point it had Arnold Schwarzenegger attached and I imagine that would have been much more of a straight up action movie than the Will Smith movie turned out to be.

    1. It probably would, and that might have actually worked. In a sense, The Omega Man was that, but it had its own problems.

      I just don't understand why no one can get the ending right.