There’s an entire subgenre of science fiction flicks from the ’70s which feature Charlton Heston in a futuristic setting. Nowadays, these films work mostly as camp or kitsch (with the possible exception of Planet of the Apes). Soylent Green is one of those movies I suspect few people haven’t actually seen. Many know it from that hilarious Phil Hartman sketch on Saturday Night Live, where he plays a hambone Heston who continually flubs his line. It’s pretty funny in the actual movie, too: Heston flails his arms and screams, ‘Soylent Green is people! It’s peopppppllllleeeee!‘ All right, maybe you had to be there, but to me, that’s pretty hilarious stuff.
Finally, we have The Omega Man, based on a popular Richard Matheson science fiction novel entitled I Am Legend. I’m surprised that this film hasn’t become part of pop culture, since it features Heston as the last virile hero on the planet (involved in an interracial romance — a bold political move at that time).
Heston plays a rugged doctor that has survived devastating germ warfare. The rest of the planet was wiped out. As the creator of a vaccine, he was only able to save enough of the drug for his own use in one of those operatic scenes where he’s covered in blood and oh-so-dramatically injects himself. ‘Must… get… serum,’ he says.
Horrible vampiric creatures control the decimated city. They patrol the streets creating bonfires and hurling catapults at Heston’s above-ground mansion/fortress. Heston discovers a small hippie clan of survivors — a group of young kids who have hidden away and now seek salvation. Can Heston use his blood to create a new serum, providing hope for the future? Or will it be another one of those paranoid ’70s endings where all hope is lost?
As a suspense film, there’s virtually zero. Heston is seemingly indestructible, even though he’s one man against a virtual army of vampires. This makes sense, though, when you consider that he did part the Red Sea, so who’s arguing?
The Omega Man works on the idea of, ‘What if I was the last guy on earth? I could go into a record store and get all of those old Beatles CDs I wanted to track down, and I don’t have to pay back my student loans or — heck — worry about money ever again.’ It’s a theme exploited most recently in Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later, and those who want more virus action will find much pleasure (and catch 28 Days‘ references) in The Omega Man. Though this film feels cheap and ham-fisted, the romance between Heston and Rosiland Cash (a black woman) is heartfelt and political in a way today’s politically correct action flicks aren’t.