Criterion // 1964 // 110 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 27th, 2011
A lone U.S. astronaut spaceship-wrecked on Mars!
Byron Haskin's 1964 science fiction gem Robinson Crusoe on Mars has previously been released twice by the good folks at the Criterion Collection (for the uninitiated, that's the gold standard of home video releasing): once on laserdisc in 1994 and again on DVD in 2007. Now, Robinson Crusoe gets its third Criterion release on Blu-ray. But with no new extras and only an A/V upgrade, is it worth shelling out for this odd, cool little movie a third time?
In the unspecified future, astronauts Kit Draper (Paul Mantee, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and Col. Don McReady (Adam West, TV's Batman) pilot the Mars Gravity Probe 1, but are forced to eject to the surface of the Red Planet to avoid colliding with a meteor. McReady doesn't survive the landing and the Gravity Probe winds up stuck in orbit, stranding Draper and Mona, a monkey, on Mars. As Draper is forced to adapt and find shelter, food, water and even oxygen, he makes startling discoveries about the planet -- including the fact that he may not be alone on Mars.
I miss the days of wonder. Once upon a time -- before movie audiences were convinced that they had seen everything (and before they actually had, quite possibly) -- there was a magic and a wonder that was possible in fantasy and science fiction movies. We're spoiled as audience members these days to the point that it takes something like James Cameron's Avatar to actually impress us. There's a cynicism and a "Seen that, what else can you show me?" approach that many of us take with our contemporary genre movies that can make it difficult to just open up and enjoy what they have to offer. It may be difficult to show something like the 1964 sci-fi movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars to the casual film fan and inspire anything but indifference, and that's too bad. That viewer would be missing out on something special.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the rare science fiction film that attempts to be as much about the science as the fiction. Though it's not as interested in Big Ideas and allegory as a lot of science fiction, it's unusually invested in the science of discovery: a lot of the movie's running time is devoted to Draper's trial and error as he learns the Red Planet's terrain and teaches himself how to survive in a (literally) alien environment. Being 1964, there's a good deal that screenwriter Ib Melchoir has to make up about life on Mars (we didn't yet know as much about planet as we do now), but many of his guesses and inventions don't actually feel that far off -- until, that is, a last act that shifts gears into Star Trek: The Original Series territory. When the film is focusing on the day-to-day survival of Draper and his monkey (the role that would eventually be played by Wilson the volleyball in Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away), it's mesmerizing.
The movie is not without its flaws. It's very slowly -- and deliberately -- paced, and the final third is problematic, getting away from what made it special and attempting to tackle ideas it's not quite equipped to. Though I'm not sure it's intentional, parts of the movie play like a celebration of American imperialism (though in 2011, it's more like a critique). Even with its limited drawbacks, though, there's so much to enjoy in Robinson Crusoe on Mars that it would be a shame for it to be missed by fans of science fiction and unique movie experiences. Even when the story or the script falters, it's a joy to look at -- all gorgeous production design, Techniscope photography and endlessly inventive in-camera optical effects. I tend to respond to these old-fashioned special effects spectacles that were pushing the limits of what was possible onscreen, if only because there's a handmade quality and attention to detail that isn't always found in modern computer-generated effects (nothing against those, either, as I've been known to enjoy the occasional CG spectacle from time to time). On a purely visual level, the movie is a lot of fun. Thankfully, there's a lot more going on than just pretty pictures.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars looks stunning on Criterion Blu-ray. The 2.35:1-framed, AVC-encoded 1080p image pops with Technicolor brilliance: colors are vibrant, detail is strong throughout and the image carries a surprising amount of depth. Even fans of the film who originally owned the DVD edition will be pleased with the visual upgrade. Only a 1.0 LCPM mono track has been included as an audio option, and it's both a faithful and surprisingly strong track; dialogue is clear and well balanced with the rest of the effects and score. It's not the kind of track that will give your system much of a workout, but it services the film well.
If there's a downside to the disc, it's that all of the extras that have been included have already been made previously available on both the 2007 standard DVD release and even the 1994 laserdisc. First up is a very good commentary (created for the laserdisc) from stars Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, screenwriter Ib Melchoir, production designer Al Nozaki and Robert Skotak, designer of the movie's nifty special effects. It's a fantastic commentary, filled with great stories about the making of the movie and more information than you can imagine, plus excerpts of a 1979 interview with the director, Byron Haskin. A brief documentary about many of the movie's ideas about Mars (called, appropriately, "Destination: Mars"), a collection of sketches and artwork, a music video for Victor Lundin's song "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" and the original (and very entertaining) theatrical trailer are all included as well.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is just the kind of movie that Criterion has always done well by, taking something that's relatively unknown, giving it a terrific treatment and introducing it to a whole new audience. It's also another excellent Blu-ray in the studio's growing collection of first-rate HD releases. It's unfortunate that no new bonus features have been produced or included, but the visual upgrade is substantial enough to warrant an upgrade for the movie's biggest fans. It may not be for everyone, but it really is something special.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Music Video
* Sketch Gallery