April 27, 2008

Charlton Heston - goodbye to THE OMEGA MAN

It had to happen eventually, but I was hoping to write this tribute before Charlton Heston passed away.

Before Star Wars came along, he was my sci-fi hero of the seventies. While he'd made a name headlining the hugest of Hollywood epics (Ben Hur, El Cid, The Ten Commandments), I was far more interested in his futuristic/apocalyptic films, all still re-running in cinemas. Towards the end of his A-list career, he bravely entered the genre that was rarely taken seriously. But with Heston starring, it helped persuade audiences to take a new look at sci-fi.

His gravitas helped make Planet of the Apes (1968) a hit with critics and audiences. Rod Serling's brilliant script illuminated the parallels between a fantasy world of intelligent animals, and the problems of real-life America, as well as providing a compelling futuristic adventure. Heston returned to reprise his role as Taylor in the gritty sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which is just as good.

He then hit a sci-fi groove, first starring in The Omega Man (1971), an adaption of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, that's heavily influential on the current Will Smith version. Though if you want better villains, more action and a better ending, you should see Charlton Heston as Robert Neville.

There's also Soylent Green (1973), a reminder that ecological disasters have been on people's minds for decades. Heston plays a detective trying to solve a murder in a massively overpopulated city, stricken with a permanent heatwave. The depiction of metropolitan food riots and voluntary euthanasia are not easily forgotten, as is the ghastly secret of Soylent Green itself.

Heston then went all 'disaster movie' in Earthquake, Airport '75 and Two Minute Warning. Despite chaos, danger, and the dam about to break, with Charlton Heston running around, you knew things were going to be all right.

Seeing these all on the big screen, cemented him in my mind's eye as a cornerstone of essential seventies cinema.

Come back, Chuck...

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