Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Daniel Defoe (novel), John C. Higgins, Ib Melchior
Starring: Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin and Adam West
With a title like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it’s easy to lump in Byron Haskin’s quiet and deliberate survival film with sci-fi b-movie fare like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or Mars Needs Women. While I don’t think it’s so horrible to hold company with goofy films such as those, Robinson Crusoe on Mars certainly excels beyond Saturday Matinee fare and gives us an interesting spin on a classic tale, resulting in a film that’s both entertaining and scientifically accurate (sort of).
The film is a sci-fi retelling of Daniel Defoe’s original novel, Robinson Crusoe, substituting a tropical island for a harsh Martian landscape. When Commander Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper (played by Paul Mantee) and his co-pilot Colonel Dan McReady (a pre-Batman Adam West in a minor supporting role) take evasive action to avoid a fiery meteor, their ship ends up low on fuel and stuck in an endless orbit around the Red Planet. Out of options, they’re forced to eject and crash land on the planet’s surface in hopes to radio for help.
After emerging from his damaged escape pod, Commander Draper surveys the situation and weighs his options. He must find Colonel McReady and figure out how to get back home. Unfortunately, his partner wasn’t as lucky; Colonel McReady was killed on impact, as confirmed by a single dead limb extruding from the dislodged hatch of his escape pod. Sort of like the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet sticking out from underneath Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz. The realization sets in that Draper is completely alone on this deserted planet, “with only his cunning to protect him.” (Wayne’s World, 1992) Luckily for Draper, their trusty companion/science experiment Mona the monkey miraculously survived the accident and acts as his “Wilson”, if you will. In reality, while it miniature space suit is cute, the monkey “actor” generally looks terrified and confused by its surroundings for the majority of its time on screen.
Some might wonder what makes Robinson Crusoe on Mars so memorable and important that it deserves the Criterion treatment (it’s worth noting the film was first released by Criterion on Laserdisc way back in 1994). I think the sparseness of the story and the creative use of effects and art direction play a role, but most importantly, it’s the attention to detail that makes this film special. The trailer actually featured a seal of approval claiming “This film is scientifically authentic. It is only one step ahead of present reality!” In some ways, this was true. The attention to detail is impressive and the science on display throughout the film is for the most part, pretty convincing.
The Mars landscape as portrayed by Hopkins and his talented team of artists is quite accurate when compared to the first photos of the red planet taken more than a year after the films production. Filmed in the infamous Death Valley National Park, the effects team made clever use of the sky as a natural blue screen, replacing it with the signature orange Mars atmosphere. That’s one fact about Mars they got right! However, even more interesting than the scientific hits are the scientific misses. At the time, the filmmakers (and I assume their technical consultants) thought the Mars atmosphere contained enough oxygen that for every breath from his O² tanks, Commander Draper could breath the Martian air for about 12 minutes. This of course is completely inaccurate but leads to an interesting dilemma. To solve the problem of his dwindling oxygen supply, he accidentally discovers a rock that when burned, emits enough oxygen to keep him alive. Again, not accurate, but interesting. It’s this element of problem solving that I found most entertaining. The film is like MacGuyver in space!
While I’m certainly a fan of sparse, single character survival films, I always find myself slightly disappointed when all of these types of stories inevitably feel the need to introduce other characters. The Last Man on Earth/Omega Man/I Am Legend did it; The Quiet Earth did it; and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does it. The last third of the film finds Commander Draper happening upon some sort of forced labour mining colony dominated by alien ships (which curiously resemble the tripods from Haskin’s own big screen adaptation of War of the Worlds.) When one of the slaves attempts an escape (Friday, played by Victor Lundin), he runs into Draper, forming an unlikely friendship for the remainder of the film. It’s sort of like Enemy Mine, minus the part where Dennis Quaid becomes a surrogate Father to a unisexual Louis Gossett Jr.’s extra-terrestrial baby. The introduction of Friday doesn’t ruin the film, but the “one man (and his monkey) trapped on a planet, using his ingenuity to survive” story is definitely the more interesting — and memorable — aspect of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
Having previously owned the standard DVD version, I can say that the Criterion blu ray of Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a marked improvement in regards to image clarity and colour reproduction. While the film still shows its age (especially in shots containing optical effects work), the presentation accurately represents what I would imagine the intentions of the filmmakers might have been. Meanwhile, all of the extra features mirror the original release, including a commentary track by screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, Oscar-winning special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak, and excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin. The disc also includes a behind the scenes featurette highlighting the science behind the film and a music video for actor Victor Lundin’s song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (which is absolutely horrible). The blu ray is certainly an improvement over the previous DVD but I’d recommend a double dip only to those serious fans of the film. — Jay C.
Recommended If You Like: Enemy Mine, The Last Man on Earth, The Quiet Earth