This remake of the 1976 blockbuster THE OMEN – which introduced the world to the devilish little Damien, the Antichrist child born of a jackal and destined to precipitate Armageddon – is even more mechanical than the original thriller. In fact, one might even call it soulless: it’s as if someone took a corpse, embalmed it to preserve the external appearance, slapped on a layer of fresh makeup, and then stuffed it full of animatronics to make it move and speak. One can admire the technical virtuoso achievement that simulates life, without ever really being fooled into thinking that the result is actually alive.
Although David Seltzer (who wrote the original) retains sole screenplay credit, the new version is not quite a word-for-word remake. At times, the revised script seems to have lifted ideas from Seltzer’s novelization that were not in the old film: the movie begins with an astronomer spotting a trio of comets in the sky, a la the Star of Bethlehem; later, Damien’s encounter with the frightened monkeys takes place not in a car in a wild animal park but in the monkey house in the zoo.
The first of these ideas actually holds promise, as the astronomer in question is a priest working out of the Vatican observatory (a place mentioned in the novel THE DA VINCI CODE but omitted from the film version). This leads to a power-point presentation for the benefit of the Pope, suggesting that recent real-life events (the fall of the Twin Towers, the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina) are fulfillments of prophecies in the Book of Revelation. With the Catholic Church now fully aware that the Antichrist has been born on Earth, one would expect some kind of papal response, some kind of Vatican secret service hit squad: Maybe James Woods from VAMPIRES? How about the Knights Templar? Or at least that albino monk from DA VINCI CODE.
But no, the cardinals assembled in Rome apparently decide to wait things out and hope for the best, while the story follows the pre-ordained pattern laid down by the original. Little scenes and bits of dialogue have been added here and there to polish over bald spots in the original, but essentially this remains the tale of an ambassador (Schreiber) and his wife (Stiles) who suffer an unbelievable series of calamities until the ambassador realizes that his adopted son is actually the Son of Satan.
The predictability of the familiar storyline is a real killer. The movie seems to take place in some kind of alternate reality where (presumably because the original version of THE OMEN does not exist) no one knows anything about Armageddon, the Antichrist, and the infamous “Number of the Beast” (666) – all common knowledge to the audience. Consequently, the film does not play out like a supernatural thriller that inexorably builds tension while gradually divulging its mystery; instead, it feels more like a shooting gallery movie, in which a series of hapless targets are set up only to be knocked down, one by one. As if sensing this problem, which creates a slack pace as we wait for the death-scenes to liven things up, the filmmakers decide it takes too long to see the nanny hang herself, so they add a gratuitous incident: an ambassador burned in a car, paving the way for Schreiber’s character to take over his position. As a plot point, it’s negligible; as a shock sequence, it does not even approach standard set by the 1976 version of THE OMEN.
The technical aspects of the film are fine, but director John Moore relies a bit too much on melodramatic lightening flashes and thunderclaps to underline the melodrama; at times, the technique almost approaches parody. The new score by Marco Beltrami (which recycles a few themes from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original) is effective in a creature-features kind of way, but the soundtrack never captures the ominous grandeur of the 1976 version.
As for little Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, he scowls into the camera just fine, but Damien remains one of the least interesting “evil children” ever seen on screen. Damien is more a prop than a character, and little of the film’s fright emanates from him. Without all those impalings and beheadings (which usually take place while he’s off-screen), he would be nothing more than a mildly disobedient child.
There are a few redeeming features. The casting of Mia Farrow (the mother in ROSEMARY’S BABY) is good for a few sly chuckles, as when her character, the evil nanny Mrs. Baylock, declares that she has been raising children for “nearly forty years.” (Let’s see, it’s 2006 now; ROSEMARY’S BABY came out in 1968. That comes to thirty-eight years.)
David Thewlis is also good in the David Warner role. You actually feel sorry for him when he dies, which is pretty amazing when you consider that the character is far from heroic (his quest to find the truth about Damien is motivated entirely by self-interest). His decapitation scene, handled very differently from the original, is still quite a shock, even if not nearly so spectacular.
As for the other deaths (which are the true raison d’etre of the film), they tend to fall flat, victims of repetition and/or overkill. Pete Postlethwaite’s priest is not only impaled but splattered with shards of stained glass that seem to have dropped in from Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. Julia Stiles’ tumble off the balcony is handled with CGI, but it fails to match the horrendous impact of Lee Remick’s physical stunt in the 1976 version (although her subsequent demise in the hospital is genuinely unnerving). Even the final, dramatic gunshot (the one that saves Damien’s life, leading to the downer ending), lacks punch; it just sort of happens.
Perhaps the film’s biggest failing is that, in hewing too slavishly to the original story, it fails to ask any of the obvious questions that should occur to characters living in the 21st century. We see cell phones, desktop computers, and digital cameras, for example, but when Thewlis’s photographer shows Ambassador Thorn the ominous pictures with strange markings that portend the deaths of the various victims, Thorn never says, “How do I know you haven’t Photoshopped these?”
On a deeper level, the interesting theological questions are never raised, let alone discussed. Why were Catholic priests involved with the birth of the Antichrist? Is Damien aware of his demonic nature from birth? If Damien is flesh-and-blood (admittedly housing a Satanic spirit), why is he impervious to disease and why would it take those seven magic daggers of Megiddo to destroy him? (He is supposed to be an inversion of Christ, after all, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus leave us in no doubt that he was vulnerable to a quite common means of human execution.) Most interesting of all, is Damien fated to Evil, or does he have a choice in the matter? In other words, would it be possible to redeem him?
By not asking these questions, the film ends up endorsing a sort of mindlessly religious approach to Evil, which can only be defeated by being killed. Christianity (in theory, at least) is about redemption, but you will see no sign of that in THE OMEN, which uses religion simply as a pretext to justify homicide. Ambassador Thorn expresses a few doubts along these lines, but even he becomes a believer by the end – which means he is willing to kill a five-year-old boy because some religious wack-job told him to.
Lurking within this storyline, like the proverbial elephant in the room, is the possible interpretation that these horrible accidents are, in fact, just accidents, leading the grief-stricken ambassador to abandon his skepticism and succumb to a paranoid mania that drives him insane. THE OMEN clearly does not want to be interpreted this way, but I find it a little dubious that a film made in the 21st century only makes sense on a plot level if we adopt an out-dated, dangerously dualistic view of the universe, of the sort that only the most extreme religious fanatics espouse. It is a seductive temptation to believe that Ultimate Evil can be easily defeated with the stroke of a dagger. It is far more frightening to imagine that otherwise good and well-intentioned people can succumb to this temptation and inadvertently destroy the innocent in the process.
Although the film evokes the Book of Revelation to justify its story of the Antichrist, most of THE OMEN is Hollywood invention (e.g., Damien is born of a jackal and can only be killed by the seven daggers of Megiddo). Perhaps the most obvious discrepancy between the film and its alleged source material is that the “Number of the Beast” in the Book of Revelations is thought by most scholars not to be a prediction that the Son of Satan will someday walk the Earth; rather, the digits 666 add up to the numeric value of the name of Nero, the emperor notorious for feeding Christians to the lions.
THE OMEN(2006). Directed by John Moore. Written by David Seltzer. Cast: Lieve Schreiber, Julia Stiles, David Thewlis, Mia Farrow, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Gambon, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick.