For this week’s Saturday Night Double Feature I decided to go for two 70s Charlton Heston top-lined apocalyptic Sci-Fi thrillers that go very well together, not only for their legendary star, but their bleak visions of the future and that they are two of my favorite 70s flicks…
THE OMEGA MAN (1971)
1971’s The Omega Man is based on Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend and is the second film adaptation of this classic tale after the Vincent Price horror The Last Man On Earth, and wouldn’t be the last, though, it’s probably the most famous. This version has a war between China and The Soviet Union spilling over to the United States, and the rest of the world, when a germ warfare plague spreads out of control. A military scientist Dr. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) has developed a cure, but a helicopter crash keeps him from delivering it, destroying the supply save only enough for him to inoculate himself. Now the former Colonel appears to be the only man left alive on earth save for the vampire-like “Family”, a dangerous group of plague infested victims who did not die, but have lost all skin and eye pigment and who can only dwell at night. Under the leadership of former TV anchor Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), they seek to eradicate anything that reminds them of the old world, as they see the plague as punishment for man’s sins. This makes Neville public enemy number one and they seek to kill him on a nightly basis. Just as his lonely existence and one man battle against an army of fiends has driven him to the brink of madness, Neville finds he may not be the only human left alive after all and the discovery of a small hidden group of unaffected survivors gives him new hope…and gives The Family new fuel to add to their cleansing fires, as they would see all dead.
This version is directed effectively by Boris Sagal (father of Sons Of Anarchy’s Katey Sagal) from a script by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington. He succeeds in creating a very bleak world that is a virtual ghost town of empty streets and scattered corpses for his lonely hero to populate. He then gives a sense of dread to the night, as our vicious Family and their murderous intent is quickly established and we know what is coming when the sun goes down. The script gives his villains intelligence, but with a inquisitional sense of justice to which fuels their sentence of death for Neville and rejection of any hope of being cured. Sagal also gives us a man on the brink of madness whose only purpose in his secluded life is to see his enemy destroyed as they would him. Once he discovers that he is not alone, the character transforms into a man with hope and new meaning as he befriends the tough but beautiful Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and her group of survivors, who are mostly kids. Best of all, Sagal gives the movie a real sense of fun and there is a lot of action as Neville seeks to save and cure this ragtag bunch, while Matthias seeks to see them all destroyed. He takes the material seriously, but has a little fun with the action-heavy premise and lets his actors ham it up a bit. The film is so delightfully 70s, right down to Ron Grainer’s funky score and the added nostalgia really makes this a good time and adds a lot of flavor to the film as well. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a great example of 70s sci-fi and how it was done back then.
As for the cast, Heston hams it up just enough to put a smile on your face, but not enough to make you roll your eyes… OK, maybe a little. His Neville is noble and dedicated, if not a little wacky at this point and watching him go from Family hunting soldier, to brilliant doctor, to smooth player romancing Lisa is a lot of the fun. It’s Heston at his best whether shooting up the bad guys, or trying to charm the last woman on the planet. It’s just fun to watch Heston being Heston. As for that last woman, Rosalind Cash is the quintessential 70s movie black woman…sassy, sexy and a street smart, smart ass. She’s tough, but can turn on the charm as easily as Heston and holds her own quite well with the legendary star, making Lisa a very likable character and believable that she can be lethal if provoked. Villain Anthony Zerbe really adds flavor here with his very creepy Jim Jones-like Matthias, who takes this group of mutated survivors and turns them into a murderous cult, if they weren’t creepy enough already with their white skin, hair, eyes and black robes with Cool-Ray sunglasses. He portrays a man not only driven mad by what’s happened to him, but drunk on his own power over the others and his self appointment as the hand of God cleansing what he sees as evil from an already desolated world. He is judge, jury and executioner and Zerbe, a very underrated actor, brings him just to the peak of over the top without sliding down the slope of camp. The rest of the cast have small parts, as it’s Heston’s show, such as Eric Laneuville as Lisa’s infected brother Ritchie and Paul Koslo as hippie former medical student Dutch. They are effective in their parts and their performances fit in with a film of this type from this era, a little over the top, but not too much. The cast seem to be having a good time and Sagal lets them.
Yes, I love The Omega Man, been a favorite since childhood, and it is effective yet, entertainingly comic book, too. Add in the 70s nostalgia from it’s style, clothes and tone of the performances and you get a really fun and quintessential example of 70s pre-Star Wars sci-fi and one of Heston’s most famous roles among many. A real 70s blast of a good time.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) creepy ‘family’ members!
SOYLENT GREEN (1973)
Two years after Heston ruled the wasteland as The Omega Man, he returned to the bleak future scenario with another film classic, Soylent Green. The film takes place in the year 2022, in a NYC populated by over 40 million people. The world has been ruined by pollution, over-population and being raped of it’s resources and now to feed the massive population, as real food is scarce and very expensive, the Soylent corporation makes various cracker like foods designated by color that supposedly signify it’s ‘healthy’ ingredients. This includes the new and widely popular Soylent Green which is supposed made with plankton from the sea. When a high ranking Soylent board member (Joseph Cotton) is murdered, hard-nosed NY cop Thorn (Charlton Heston) is sent to investigate what looks to be a simple case of a botched burglary. Thorn knows an assassination when he sees one and the deeper he and his researcher, called a “book”, Sol (the great Edward G. Robinson in his last role) dig into the case, and the Soylent Corporation’s possible involvement, the more he’s told to back off and the more in danger his life becomes. Thorn is not going to give up and the more he digs, the closer he gets to a horrifying secret that many would kill to keep hidden.
The screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg is based on the book Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison and vividly brought to bleak life by prolific director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer creates a filthy world where people literally live in hallways and streets and, if one’s lucky enough to afford one, a person can’t leave their apartment without stepping over his neighbors. A world where police routinely rob the apartments of murder victims and use garbage trucks with bulldozer scoops to control food riots which are almost a daily occurrence. It’s also a world where the rich and powerful live in sterile and beautiful apartments, that actually come with women literally referred to as ‘furniture’ and eat actual food as opposed to synthesized crackers. A world of few haves and many have nots. In this world he thrusts his anti-hero Thorn, a bit of a bastard, who ransacks Simonson’s (Cotton) apartment while investigating it. At heart Thorn is a good cop and the film takes us on a gritty and sometimes very violent investigation, till revealing it’s classic and horrifying truth as to what the Soylent corporation are really feeding the populace. It is a tense film and far more serious than Omega Man and gives us a far more grounded and gruff performance from the usually hammy Heston. The film has a lot of atmosphere and is very successful at creating it’s overpopulated and ruined world with a modest budget by use of clever art direction and set decoration. It is actually a disturbing vision of the future and very successful as a mystery/action flick as well, as Thorn unravels why such a powerful man was so brutally eliminated. The film also has some great 70s nostalgia to add after all these years, but to be honest, even without it I think it still would be a successful and chilling sci-fi flick on it’s own. Add a nice score by Fred Myrow and you get a really good 70s science fiction thriller that isn’t always appreciated like it should be.
The cast is great. We get a toned down Heston whose Thorn could be a villain in any other flick with his blatant theft of his case victim’s belongings, his mistreatment of anybody who annoys him, including hitting women and the apparent coldness which he accepts death, murder and the world around him. Heston gives us glimpses that this violent man still has a heart and an overall moral center, despite his immoral code at times. When he realizes what’s really going on, he selflessly put’s his own life at stake to bring the bad guys to light. A complex man and a different role for the star and he pulls it off well. Robinson is wonderful as Sol and he and Heston have a great camaraderie together on-screen and they work so well and it is, in an ironic way, a fitting final performance. Cotton has a brief appearance as Simonson, but gives him a quiet nobility as he meets his demise with acceptance and understanding. Chuck Connors is appropriately slimy as Simonson’s crooked bodyguard and a man far more dangerous than he appears. The beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young gives some nice depth to Shirl, Simonson’s former ‘furniture’ who falls for Thorn and thaws the cop’s cold heart somewhat. She and Heston also work well together and it’s a shame that once the plot really gets going, her character is sort of brushed aside. Rounding out are the always enjoyable Brock Peters as Thorn’s boss Hatcher and Lincoln Kilpatrick in a small but haunting role as a priest driven literally mad by the weight of Simonson’s confessed secrets. We even get a cameo from Star Trek’s “T’Pau” Celia Lovsky, too! A really good cast who help add to the film’s atmosphere with their characterizations.
This is obviously another 70s favorite of mine and I can be very passionate about flicks like this. They have a character that few movies today have. Soylent Green in particular really represents that pre-Star Wars era very well and is a really fun flick despite it’s bleakness. It is a very well made movie and has a solid anti-hero character brought to life by it’s star. A really enjoyable flick made even more entertaining with the added nostalgia from an era of films which they don’t make anymore.
PERSONAL NOTE: One of the things that personally disturbs me somewhat about this film is that it was made before the World Trade Center towers were finished, but in a spooky irony, takes place in a future time where they would no longer be there and thus their absence from the NYC skyline is disturbingly accurate. Got chills just writing that!
If you have time for a third 70s apocalyptic feature, add on the lesser known Yul Brynner flick The Ultimate Warrior (1975) which fits in nicely with the other two mentioned here…and I will cover that film in the coming week!
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) soylent green crackers!
WARNING: Trailer may not reveal the BIG secret, but does reveal a lot of spoilers if you haven’t seen this classic…