Judge Mike Rubino is looking forward to other literary/sci-fi mash-ups like Cyrano de Bergerac on Jupiter and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on Mercury.
Our review of Robinson Crusoe On Mars (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published January 27th, 2011, is also available.
One U.S. astronaut pitted against all the odds beyond this earth!
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a ridiculous title, and at first glance, a ridiculous idea for a movie. And yet after viewing, I realized that this film not only successfully translates the classic tale into the world of science fiction, but is also a proper gauge for the space program at the time. Robinson Crusoe on Mars: The Criterion Collection, a gold-carpet treatment of the movie, is impressive, and helps to lift the film to a level where it can be appreciated by new, rightfully skeptical audiences.
Facts of the Case
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a fairly straightforward, earnest interpretation of the 18th Century novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. This film doesn't try to reenact the entire book, but rather focuses on the main thrust of the story, in which Crusoe finds himself alone on an island trying to survive.
Of course, this film begins in "near-future 1964," as two astronauts, Kit Draper and Dan McReady, and a monkey orbit around Mars. While orbiting around the Red Planet, things go awry and the astronauts have to eject to safety. Kit (played by Paul Mantee) is able to land safely, despite being bombarded by fireballs and explosions. However, Dan (Adam West, Batman), isn't so lucky. From then on, it's just Kit and his monkey, Mona (played by Barney, the Woolly Monkey), as he struggles to find oxygen, food, and his sanity.
The movie is infused with loads of scientific theories actually believed back in 1964 (many of them were disproved about a year later with the Mariner 4 mission), about canals on Mars, standing water, and the effective use of pistols in space. That last one may not have been disproved.
From everything I read about the film and all of the commentary provided in this release, the general consensus seems to be that Robinson Crusoe on Mars was way ahead of its time. Going into this movie, I was expecting a campy space adventure with alien gun fights and crazy Martian creatures; instead, what I found was a visually striking but scientifically naive piece of literary science fiction that put Man's internal struggle above the gadgets and gizmos. And there was a monkey.
For 1964, this film is a special-effects wonder, thanks in large part to director Byron Haskin, who prior to this directed 1953's War of the Worlds. Through extensive scouting in Death Valley, California, along with the help of film matting, he was able to create a surprisingly accurate Mars surface. The term "special effects" has lost much of its meaning nowadays, but back in '64 these effects truly were "special." Thanks to an amazing transfer by Criterion, the stuff doesn't look too bad, either.
Sure the film is filled with scientific inaccuracies, but apparently they weren't all that "inaccurate" at the time. Watching the movie, questions kept popping in to my head, like: Why can he breathe sometimes and not other times? Why isn't Kit floating? Why is there so much fire if there isn't supposed to be oxygen? And why is he so confident that these "space sausages" are safe to eat? Thankfully, the movie does a good job of answering most of my questions. I won't tell you the answers here, of course, but rest knowing that almost everything is explained in some way or another. It's nice to know that this movie was made for general audiences—and for geeks who refuse to simply play along, too.
Amazingly, the movie gets away with a cast of three humans and one monkey. Paul Mantee is able to carry the bulk of the film on his wide shoulders. Of course he doesn't have the emotional depth of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but you believe that he knows what he's doing. He plays it straight, as if he were really an astronaut and a scientist, not some swash-buckling Flash Gordon-type. His companion, Friday, is played dutifully by Victor Lundin. He puts a nice spin on the Friday character, acting almost like he belongs in the original Defoe novel, what with his loin cloth and Mayan-talk, instead of on Mars. And then there's the brief appearance of Adam West as the other astronaut. He plays it pretty much how you'd expect him to play it…
According to much of the commentary on the disc, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was dangerously close to being directed by Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet). Melchior wrote the original treatment for the script, which was essentially the same story but more like what I described above…with more aliens, monsters, lasers, etc. Thankfully, he was busy directing The Time Machine and Haskin took over, making it a much more dramatic, grounded affair. In the end, though it got a lot of stuff wrong, they believed it all was possible and thus created a very honest piece of science fiction.
The production crew wasn't the only group of folks who believed wholeheartedly in this movie—clearly Criterion did as well. This DVD release is packed with the kind of fantastic extras you would expect from Criterion. They're not trying to sell you on the movie, or possible sequels—this film is too old for that; instead they just want to put out there as much information about the movie, its production, and the era in which it was made as possible.
First there's the commentary track, which is actually an amalgamation of a handful of commentary tracks recorded over the years. It features Melchior, Mantee, and Lundin, as well as Oscar-winning special effects designer Robert Skotak. This is all combined with excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin. A nice feature in the commentary is that it's broken up into its own chapter titles, so if you want to go back and listen to a specific subject within the commentary, you can find it and skip right to it. It's a great feature that I wish more non-Criterion DVDs employed.
There is also section on the disc called "Survival Kit," which contains a smattering of other special features, the best of which is a 20-minute documentary on the film called "Destination: Mars." I almost screamed when I saw they used the font Comic Sans to do all of the intertitles for the featurette (Criterion, you of all people should know better); after that shock passed, I found a very informative documentary on the movie and the space program at the time. The scientists featured in this documentary clearly point out the inaccuracies of the movie, and offer explanations for how they may have come about. Also in the "Survival Kit" section is a music video to a rather awkward and ridiculous song about the movie written and sung by Lundin. Maybe Criterion was a little too thorough. There is also an extensive photo gallery featuring all of the concept art for this film and for Melchior's version of the movie. You can also pop the DVD into your computer and read a PDF of sections of Melchior's original script.
Then there's the trailer for the movie. Whatever you do, don't watch this before the film; the trailer actually tells you every major plot point in the movie! No wonder this movie bombed in the box office; everyone saw the trailer and was totally satisfied! Stay far away until after the fact.
Finally, the DVD comes with a wonderfully designed booklet featuring an extensive essay on the film by Michael Lennick, fun facts about Mars circa 1964, and a weird dictionary of the alien language Melchior wanted to use in the film (but they didn't). I'm always impressed with the packaging design of Criterion discs, and this one is certainly no exception (and it beats the pants off of the movie's original poster, which is probably another reason why people didn't go see it in theaters).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fantastic DVD presentation aside, how could you possibly overlook the ridiculous nature of this film? The astronaut brings a revolver in to space! The monkey wears a fur diaper so you don't see his animal parts! And for Pete's sake, they use the same space ships from War of the Worlds in this movie!
And don't forget about the fact that they shoehorned the religious messages of Defoe's book into this space adventure for no reason. It also shoehorns in a lot of stock footage and repeated film clips.
Four years later, we got Planet of the Apes. Now there's a movie about crash landing in a desert with some monkeys!
There are a lot of movies that riff off the themes in Robinson Crusoe, and there are even other versions of the movie set in space…but this one stands out as an overlooked gem. Sure it's campy and filled with scientific inaccuracies, but who cares? It lives in the world in which it was created, and relies on its own logic to get through to the end. It is a great piece of science fiction about a man struggling to survive on his own.
Guilty of being a thorough (almost too thorough) Criterion release of a forgotten sci-fi feature.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Ib Melchior, Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Al Nozaki, Robert Skotak, and Byron Haskin
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