"They sure don't make pictures like that anymore," Charlton Heston says with a sneer early in the 1971 film The Omega Man. Sitting alone in an empty theater, he clutches a gun and mouths the dialogue to Woodstock, watching the apex of '60s peace and love for the umpteenth time before heading out to roam the abandoned streets. It's one of the few moments in this otherwise unimaginative adaptation that captures the lonely poetry of its inspiration, Richard Matheson's last-man-on-earth novella I Am Legend, but it's an image that sums up a trilogy of Heston films, kicked off by Planet Of The Apes and carried on by The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both of which have been newly released on DVD). All three films feature Heston as the last voice of reason, left to look back in anger on a world whose beauty was equaled only by its power to destroy itself. The Omega Man strands him in a world devastated by germ warfare, where he battles a group of violent, civilization-hating survivors who resemble albino hippies in monk garb, and who call themselves The Family. (Any resemblance to Charles Manson and the darker elements of the counterculture is undoubtedly no accident.) The world has traded the madness of war for the madness of anarchy, and while the film suffers from pedestrian direction by TV vet Boris Sagal, the strangely resonant scenario still allows it to puff by. If nothing else, The Omega Man remains worth seeing for its remarkable shots of Heston wandering through an abandoned metropolis, a conceit recently borrowed to great effect by both Vanilla Sky and 28 Days Later. The 1973 film Soylent Green, an adaptation of the Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room!, goes the opposite direction, throwing Heston into streets filled with overpopulated masses yearning to breathe free, or at least score a good meal. (And where The Omega Man is clearly a comment on dimming '60s idealism, Soylent Green plays like the product of a '60s idealist turned bitter.) Set in 21st-century New York, the film casts Heston as an unapologetically corrupt detective investigating the death of privileged bureaucrat Joseph Cotten. Though the mystery has been spoiled somewhat by an over-revealed twist ending, Soylent Green still succeeds thanks to director Richard Fleischer's sure command of one of the grimmest and most sadly plausible dystopias put to film. Following an ecological collapse, even privilege has been devalued. The rich pay through the nose for jars of jam and tiny servings of beef, while the poor line up for rations of mass-produced wonder foods reportedly mined from the ocean floor, like Soylent Red and the new sensation, Soylent Green. Heston's skeleton-digging eventually leads him to Soylent Green's secret, but only after taking him on a grand tour of a world so lousy, it's little wonder that there's a booming business in suicide services, which promise easy death after 20 minutes of Beethoven- and Grieg-scored footage of unspoiled nature. At one of these, as Heston bids farewell to friend Edward G. Robinson (in his final role), the Apocalypse Heston cycle scores its other indelible image. Looking back at an unspoiled world from the vantage of a world gone wrong, he can do nothing but melt into tears.
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