January 5, 2016

THE OMEGA MAN and the Bitter End

Starring Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Roselind Cash, Paul Koslo, Lincoln Kilpatrick. Directed by Boris Segal. (1971, 98 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

If you really want to know what humanity is made of, simply deny them something they take for granted...

Not too long ago, during Portland's first real snowfall in five years, I was in my office at the computer, pecking out my usual words of wisdom while Slayer roared from the speakers. My wife, Francie, was in the living room watching television and browsing Facebook on her phone while she contemplated starting dinner. The kids were in their rooms, Natalie rockin' Fallout 4 on her PS4, Lucy Skyping with her current BFF while they played Minecraft together. Snow or no snow, this is more-or-less my family's nightly routine.

But on this particular evening, the power went out, cutting off "Angel of Death" mid-song. Almost immediately, my daughters bolted from their rooms and scurried downstairs, iPhones in-hand with the flashlights on, faces white with terror. Not from a fear of the dark, but because the WiFi was dead

"Did we blow a fuse?" Francie asked as she began lighting candles around the house.

I threw on a jacket and went outside. My dog, Murphy, followed, taking the opportunity to tear around in the snow. The power was out everywhere, but Murphy paid no mind as he repeatedly jumped at me, hoping I'd take time for some powder play. Relieved it wasn't a fuse (I don't generally keep spares handy), I stomped snow from my shoes, went back inside and informed everyone the whole neighborhood was dark.

"Why?" Lucy asked, obviously concerned.

I shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe a car hit a power pole."

"When will it come back on?"

"Dunno. Pretty soon."

Lucy and Natalie didn't appear too happy with my answer. Trotting amongst us with snow on his snout, Murphy didn't care. Nor did Josie, our fat-ass cat, still scarfing the contents of her bowl without batting a whisker over the sudden disruption.

I remember experiencing blackouts as a kid and thinking they were cool...no power, nothing for light but candles. It was a welcome break in the daily routine, and perhaps a brief taste of what an apocalypse might be like. But back then, aside from being denied television, blackouts were never a monumental disruption. I could still draw, write stories, play with my Legos or beat my sister at Monopoly, none of which required a power source. I was sometimes even a little disappointed when the lights would came back on.

What a difference 40 years makes...

My family and I gathered into the candlelit living room to pass the time until civilization returned. While we always enjoyed sitting together to talk and joke around, it's not nearly as entertaining when it's your only option. With no WiFi, our tablets and laptops were useless, and even though Francie and Natalie had their phones, neither had much charge left. Every few minutes Lucy would ask when the power was coming back. I had no answer, of course, but the disappointment in her face made me feel like a failure as a father.

As time passed and the house became colder, the girls grew agitated. I initially chuckled at their dependence on laptops and devices to remain entertained, at least until I absently picked up the TV remote, idiotically forgetting blackouts affect more than just our WiFi. I made the same mistake a few minutes later when firing up my iPad in hopes of playing some poker with online friends to pass the time. Unless I felt like engaging in a few rounds of Angry Birds, it was essentially a glorified lamp. Sure, Francie still had her phone service and was frantically searching for updates, but none were forthcoming and it was just a matter of time before her power ran dry. That's when it really hit me that we were damn near cut-off from the world.

More time ticked by and inevitable hunger set in. Both girls needed to eat, but my wife and I were helpless to do anything about it. I suggested they make themselves sandwiches. Being older and more experienced in such situations, Natalie managed to piece together a makeshift peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But Lucy? Without the microwave available, she was helpless and starving once the last remaining bag of potato chips was gone. The poor girl was withering away before my eyes.

Meanwhile, the skies darkened and our tedium grew to the point of desperation. Francie's phone finally died, casting a air of doom throughout the house as she convulsed in agony on the living room floor, spittle spewing from her lips. Meanwhile, Josie meowed incessantly to inform us her bowl was now empty. But I couldn't be bothered with such trifles. Though it broke my heart, Francie was too-far-gone and my daughters’ lives were all that mattered now. It was at this point that an ominous thought crept into my mind: What if the power never comes back?

My God, what would I do? How would I protect and provide for my family? With no power, how can I microwave the sustenance required to keep them alive? As a city boy, I never shot any animal with the intention of eating it later. And even if there were such weapons in the house, I had no idea how prepare a fresh kill for consumption (that’s what grocery stores were for).

Not only that, how would I deal with my daughters’ increasing anxiety? They were now staring at me with black sunken eyes, withdrawl symptoms from having no contact from the outside world. As the blackout wore on, I helplessly wondered how much time was left before they dropped to the floor and curled up into quivering balls of despair.

And coffee - oh, Christ, I forgot about coffee! - the only substance known to keep me from killing everyone in the room! If this blackout persisted ‘till morning, what would become of my kids? And where would I stash the bodies?

Then the lights came back on. Elapsed time: 1 hour and 2 minutes, according to Natalie's phone, which ran out of juice a few seconds later (thank God that crisis was averted...I'd hate to see her head explode).

With the impending apocalypse now cancelled, collective sighs of relief filled the room. After resetting all the clocks in the house, Francie & Natalie plugged their phones back in, waves of euphoria spreading over their faces like they just got a heroin fix. Lucy retreated to her bedroom to continue Skyping. Josie meowed to remind me her bowl was still empty. Back to the ol' routine.

I, on the other hand, came to the sad conclusion that, if any true apocalypse were to happen, this family would be royally screwed. We’re so dependent on our electronic gadgets and appliances that we’d be totally lost without them, spasmodically flopping around like snared tuna on the deck of a sea trawler. In the past, I have always felt superior to others who felt the incessant need to live vicariously through their cell phones. But while I still firmly believe phones are the primary reason for the dumbing-down on mankind, I’ve discovered I’m now just as incapable of surviving very long without my precious computer, TV, iPad, refrigerator, microwave and internet, a far cry from my younger days of roughing-it, when Charlton Heston was still my definition of a true badass.

I wasn’t even born during Chuck’s glory days as a 'real' actor in such classics as Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. During my formative years, Heston was instead the tough-as-leather, sci-fi/disaster guy who kicked monkey-ass in Planet of the Apes, uncovered the Soylent Green conspiracy, landed a crippled plane in Airport 1975 and chose to die saving his crazy bitch-of-a-wife (Ava Gardner) over boinking a much younger & hotter Geneviene Bujold in Earthquake (I never said his characters were always smart).

"I swear to God...I wasn't really doing what you saw me doing."

In my youth, Chuck was the very definition of a larger-than-life hero and I worshipped him accordingly. He seemed unfazed by anything, including the apocalypse, as demonstrated in 1971’s The Omega Man. Here he plays Robert Neville, a scientist who is rendered immune to a worldwide plague after injecting himself with the vaccine. A few distant years later (1975), he’s apparently the last man on Earth, cruising the empty streets in sports cars by-day, killing disease-ridden mutants by-night from the lofty comfort of his generator-powered, armed-to-the-nuts penthouse apartment.

These albino mutants want him dead because he symbolizes everything wrong with the old world. But as Neville discovers while fondling a mannequin one day, he’s not truly alone. Rosalind Cash shows up to put some tightness in his trousers, and she’s accompanied by a biker and a few kids, some of whom are succumbing to the disease. Since Neville’s immune, there’s a chance he can cure them with a serum made from his own blood.

Obviously, Neville has a lot more on his plate than my family and I did during our one-hour night of terror. And like Mad Max nearly a decade later, The Omega Man even made the end of the world look kind-of fun at the time...unlimited resources, a whole city to yourself, a hot chick at your side while blowing away monsters. Sure, he had to fight for his life every night, but he made-do with weapons, booze, a chessboard and a generator. What else did a guy really need in the 70s?

But unlike Charlton Heston, I’ve become soft, complacent and dependent on the electronic wonderland I call home. Yet I’ve never stopped and taken the time to marvel at the sheer wonder of my ice-cube-making fridge, nor contemplated what I'd do without it. I’ve literally forgotten what it’s like to live without the luxuries I now take for granted. Whatever happened to the 10-year-old me, who relished blackouts as a chance to unleash a bit of his inner Heston?

As for my kids...except for this brief blackout, they know nothing about life before microwave ovens, Eggo waffles, calculators, Direct TV, cell phones, tablets, game consoles and the internet. In fact, Francie’s the only one in the family who’s probably able to prepare a meal without having the local Domino’s number handy. The rest of us would resort to cannibalism within a few hours of that first hunger pain.

I’m sad to say this, but whatever global apocalypse might await the world in the near future, me and my entire family will likely be some of the first to go, long before any mutants or zombies even show up. We just aren’t built for this end-of-the-world shit.

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