By: Carlo Rotella
February 12, 2020

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.



Charlton Heston is playing chess against a bust of Julius Caesar in his fabulous swinging bachelor pad in downtown Los Angeles. Heston’s character, nominally a soldier-scientist named Robert Neville, is pretty much the same composite guy that Heston plays in other apocalyptic movies of the era, Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green. This time Heston’s living the Playboy ideal in the ruins of civilization: with expensive art all around and easy listening on the turntable, he’s sipping a drink, cooking sausage, and wearing a lustrously shaggy green jacket over a frilled shirt — a straight arrow’s idea of a mod getup, already touchingly out of date. A pack of darkness-dwelling plague victims in the street outside is mocking him and launching flaming projectiles at his fortified home with a catapult, but he ignores this nightly nuisance — until a fireball comes in through an open window and sets a curtain on fire. “Excuse me,” he says to Caesar. Those damn kids again. Rising, he douses the flames with a fire extinguisher and then takes up a BAR equipped with an infrared scope and scatters the black-robed zombie-vampire hybrids below with bursts of fire.

The Last Man on Earth story offers a set of lego pieces that can be rearranged to say different things at different times. In the novella on which the movie is based, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), Neville’s a darkly comic cartoon of Fifties Man. Holed up in a modest suburban-style house in Compton, he fortifies himself with booze, steak, and middlebrow culture against plague-defiled vampire-zombie neighbors who try to lure him out by playing on his achingly repressed sexual urges. In The Omega Man, those neighbors have become analogues of the hippies, Black Panthers, and Weathermen who commanded cultural center stage at the time. Heston, who caresses an automatic weapon while reciting dialogue along with the hippie musicians on the screen as he watches Woodstock over and over at a local movie theater, must figure out how to walk the line between coexistence with this new order and an all-out war of annihilation. The 2007 remake, I Am Legend, with Will Smith replacing Heston and L.A. replacing New York, attempts no such balancing act in refiguring the story as a winner-take-all struggle between the One Percent and the Other 99.

There are countless other versions of the Last Man formula, which Matheson authoritatively rethought but did not invent, and no doubt more to come featuring climate-change-refugee vampire-zombies, workers-displaced-by-automation vampire-zombies, and so on. But The Omega Man may be the ripest assembly of the lego pieces to date, in part because the movie burns to just let Neville mow down the freaks but knows that giving in to this urge won’t help. Its restraint seems quaint now. When a plague-infected child asks Heston “Are you God?” he doesn’t say in response, “No, but I’m Moses, and soon I will become the public face of the NRA as it comes into its own as a political force during a coming era when we will stop bothering to imagine pluralist give-and-take and increasingly turn instead to telling stories in which one’s proper relationship to fellow citizens is to aim for the head.” But, in retrospect, it’s all implied in that “Excuse me.”


KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.


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