A quintessential product of the early 1970s and the characteristic sci-fi of the era, the one thing that you can't say about 1971's The Omega Man is that it tries too hard to hew to the book. Except for the central concept - and that only vaguely - this film has essentially nothing in common with Matheson's novel: as scripted by John & Joyce Carrington (later to write Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Martin Scorsese's studio debut, the kind of awful Boxcar Bertha) this is the story of Robert Neville (given his name back after the earlier adaptation The Last Man on Earth, and played now by Charlton Heston), who lives in a nice LA loft packed to the gills with decorations and luxuries. By day he hunts for clothes and cars, and treats himself to private screenings of Woodstock, apparently the only film playing in Los Angeles at the time of the plague in 1975, many years earlier (the year being another reversion to the source material not found in the Price movie). By night he stares out his window at the rest of "mankind": robed technophobic cultists with rotting flesh led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), anxious to kill the last of the "people of the wheel" as they call the humans still using the technology that permitted the bio-warfare which caused their half-dead state. They have a particularly strong hatred for Neville, as he was a military chemist back in the times when there was an American military, and he received the only dose of a highly experimental treatment for the disease, leaving him immune to its effects.

The fact that The Omega Man goes so very far afield from the novel is at least part of what makes it a reasonably successful entry in the typically dubious post-apocalypse genre that was so prevalent in the '70s. The other part is Heston, who on paper seems like he'd be woefully wrong for the part, excepting that all of his usual weaknesses, primarily his square-jawed inability to emote, are benefits to this film's vision of Neville. He's not tormented and alone, so much as he is a wiseass, befitting a tone that is significantly less dark than Matheson's source novel. It is a breezy film about the death of mankind in a way that only the '70s could have provided us, and it requires a breezy sort of last man. In other words, if Price had spent his days watching Woodstock over and over, it would have wrecked the mood of the film past repair, but when Heston does it, my only question is why he'd bother with a damn hippie movie like that.

I don't mean to suggest that The Omega Man is some kind of end-times laff riot; indeed, it's much more serious than I Am Legend/The Last Man on Earth, in that where those are experiments in narrative points of view and genre expectations, this film is a Christ allegory. The source material already had the vague idea that Neville's blood held the key to saving humanity; but that idea is much expanded on here, Neville is asked point-blank by a little girl if he is God, and the final shot is, let us say, crucifabulous. The '70s were just awesome like that: you could blend Big Themes with funkiness, and nobody minded much. Although I can't imagine that even when it was new, people didn't have a big problem with the garish, pop-inflected score that pretty much undermines everything whenever it is playing.

At heart, I think that Heston's presence has more to do with it than anything. Price, no question, is a hambone, but Heston is kitschy. (Was that the case in 1971? I have no idea. I can only call them as I see them from 35+ years on). He makes any film a little creakier and more old-timey, adding just that tiny soupçon of over-the-top manliness to make things seem much more heightened and silly.

And yet (you had to know that I was going to trot out an "and yet"), The Omega Man is hardly a silly movie. It's quite nihilistic, more so than the Logan's Runs and Soylent Greens that were to come, and for this I credit the amazing production design of the film - although it's probably not right to call it "production design," given that it's just the city of Los Angeles playing itself. Director Boris Sagal (a man with an even less distinguished career than Sidney Salkow's) hit upon an idea of almost unimaginable simplicity, one so brilliant that Danny Boyle stole it outright when directing his spiritual remake 28 Days Later some three decades in the future: shooting the big city early on weekend mornings gives you a great many chances to film streets and plazas and stores that are literally empty of human life. LA is a scary and lonely place when it's vacant, and the film makes great use of that. Abandoned cars and lifeless bodies are everywhere, and where The Last Man on Earth mostly contented itself to show a man trapped in an oppressive suburban home, The Omega Man gets most of its effect from showing the city - the pinnacle of human beings milling about and getting in each other's way - without a trace of life.

That's enough to make the film close on to a masterpiece, but the mise en scène can't overcome the rather awkward kinks in the plot. The hooded crazies aren't terrible in concept, and Anthony Zerbe brings a frightening intensity that contrsts nicely to Heston, but sacrificing the cannibalism angle takes a lot of the threat out of their villainy, and the albino makeup effects are not all that convincing. That's nothing on the development where the film wholly abandons Matheson, introducing Neville to a group of survivalists led by the vaguely defined Lisa (Rosalind Cash) and pre-med student Dutch (Paul Koslo). The inevitable love subplot that crops up between Lisa and Neville is too self-conscious in its nifty early-'70s race politicking, and even if it weren't, the very concept of a love story tends to imbalance the idea that Neville is besieged. It's the clearest example of the film's great problem: there just isn't enough danger here, and Neville seems perfectly content with his life just the way it is, the ultimate bachelor's existence in a city that is his for the taking.

There's just no urgency here, which is honestly not a fatal flaw. But it is a flaw, and it keeps the film from hitting the nightmarish heights of the book or the much smaller bad dream hills of The Last Man on Earth. Basically, instead of exploring man's role in a post-apocalyptic world, it is a fun movie with some serious ideas. That's not bad, but it keeps the film from transcending itself. It adds a sense of play to Matheson's framework, and thereby crowds out the most unsettling elements of his writing, the elements that made it a masterpiece in the first place.

(For more thoughts on I Am Legend, the book and the films based on it, head over here)