If you ever want to dissect the unusual Heston Mystique, this moment is probably the place to start.
“In the beginning, we tried to help one another, those that were left,” he tells Neville. “We tried to clean things up, set things straight. We buried things and burned. Then it came to me that we were chosen. Chosen for just this work: To bury what was dead. To burn what was evil. To destroy what was dangerous.”
In short, Matthias gives new meaning to the term eliminationalist rhetoric. He wants nothing less than to erase Neville — and twenty centuries of human development — from the history books.
When Neville realizes that mankind could have a future again in this small group, he re-doubles his effort to produce a vaccine for the germ that destroyed almost all life on Earth. He realizes that the key to destroying the plague involves his own untainted blood…
Neville continually drops one-liners, to an audience of one: himself.
“Another day, another dollar.” “There’s never a cop around when you need one.” And — during a viewing of Woodstock (1970) — “They sure don’t make pictures like that anymore.”
All these jokes are determinedly cliched, and yet these familiar turns-of-phrase from before the apocalypse also seem poignant because they no longer carry their original meanings. Rather, they call attention to Neville’s plight.
Another day another dollar? Money is worthless.
There’s never a cop around when you need one? There’s nobody around. Period.
They sure don’t make pictures like that? In fact, no new movies are being made.
Neville’s sarcastic running commentary reveals just how pointless and empty his life has become; and how impossible it is to forget the past, and the dead.
Another exemplary scene early in the film finds Neville hunting down the Family in the empty Hotel Premiere. He passes through a fancy hall with a grand chandelier, and then moves into a dining room where a long dinner table is still set with the finest china and linens. Again, table settings, fancy dishes, frilly gold curtains, and ornate light fixtures seem damned unimportant in the face of extinction. The visuals in this scene get at that idea; at the notion of man as having gone the way of the dodo or the dinosaur; with only these empty forms and shapes left behind.
Many such moments early in the film practically tingle with this electric idea of a fully-decorated but unpopulated world, as well as Neville’s seething, caustic anger about his fate. For instance, there’s a moment when he spies a pin-up calendar on a car dealership wall, and has to take it down. He can’t bear to look at it; to be reminded of the fairer sex. It’s just too much to bear..
And the scene in the movie theater, with Neville lip-synching the words to hippie dialogue in Woodstock (1970) is some kind of twisted genius. It gets to the tension inherent in casting right-wing Heston in a role such as this (or in the role of Taylor in Planet of the Apes). Heston’s Neville doesn’t give a flying hoot for the hippies or their counter-culture belief system. But here he is, alone at the end of the world, and, well, he’ll settle even for a hippie’s faux profundity as company.
By having Neville accept and repeat the words of Woodstock, the movie knowingly puts this guy in the role of humanity’s defender. Messy humanity’s defender, I should say, longing for all the species’ stupid conflicts, nonsense, and silliness. Neville is there…celebrating it; mourning it. It’s the equivalent of George Clooney playing Neville after the apocalypse, lip-synching to a Rush Limbaugh recording, or a Bill O’Reilly show. There’s a tension to it; an irony. And a poignancy too.
The Omega Man also thrives as a good old fashioned action film. There’s an exhilarating motorcycle escape in a football-stadium, scored heroically — again — by Granier, and culminating in a slow-motion jump. It’s sort of refreshing and eye-opening how basic and well-staged it is, with no digital effects or CGI backgrounds or herky-jerky camera work and editing. To quote Neville, “they don’t make pictures like this anymore.”
I suppose most of the ire and brickbats directed at The Omega Man over the years involve the film’s ending. In case you’ve forgotten, the climax finds Neville speared to a modern art fountain outside his apartment. As he dies in a pool of his own life-saving blood, Neville slips into a Christ pose; of Jesus Christ on the cross. I know this ending really upset critic Howard Thompson at The New York Times, who called it “phony” and “florid.”
I agree that this ending is bracing, but would nonetheless argue that the way for it is is paved early on. A young girl gazes at Neville admiringly and asks, “Are you God?” If that’s not a clear set-up for the quasi-religious denouement, I don’t know what would be.
But on more basic terms, what’s intrinsically wrong or wrong-headed with the comparison of Neville to Christ? Both men die for the sins of the world; and both die giving humanity a second chance. In John 1:7, it is written “and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” In the case of Neville, his blood will also cleanse humanity of the plague; the sin of germ warfare made manifest in flesh.
Secondly, a critical part of Matheson’s original novel is the mythologizing of Neville as a kind of bedtime story for the vampires, a bogeyman. Though The Omega Man de-mythologizes and de-romanticizes the tale to a considerable degree, this ending brings it all back in. This movie’s events serve, in a sense, as an origin story of how mankind got a second chance.
That line of Scripture quoted above actually begins with the words “If ye walk in the light, as he is in the light..” And consider too that throughout the film, Neville is dramatically associated with the light; just as the Family is associated with the dark. Neville only operates in the day time, and he preserves also the light of knowledge: of literature, art, medicine and science. In the case of the latter two, those are the very things which enable Neville to share his life-giving blood.
So the Crucifixion pose, if you will, not only works thematically; but it works in terms of the literal story and what these characters witness and will come to remember. This is especially true of the children, particularly that little girl who asked if Neville is God. She will grow up and tell her children about the man whose blood saved the human race.
To some — especially as generations pass — Neville will indeed seem as a God, or at least a Savior.
I don’t find the ending of The Omega Man sacreligious or profane, or even overly florid. I think it’s the perfect and valid ending to Neville’s particular story. After having spent years in the “wilderness” of Los Angeles alone, he returns to humanity and finds redemption both for himself and his people. He has gone from being “hostile” and “not belonging” to saving the human race. Furthermore, the casting of Heston, whom many associate with religious imagery because of Ten Commandments, lends further validity to a religious or mythological interpetation of Neville’s life.
Finally, I’ve been writing about dystopias a lot lately. There gets to be, at some point, common ground with the post-apocalyptic film. They aren’t always one in the same, but in the case of The Omega Man, I would argue that they are. The film depicts not just life after the fall of man, but a new and terrifying order, a “Family” (in the style of Charles Manson’s) that wants to burn and destroy everything of value, from art to literature to sculpture. This Family would leave the Earth in a new Dark Age without beauty, without imagination, without past, and therefore without potential.
That’s the “Hell,” so-to-speak, that Neville delivers the world from. And that’s why he earns his valedictory crucifixion.