ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Paul Mantee, Victor
Lundin, Adam West
Director: Byron Haskin
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: September 18, 2007
“You gotta face the reality of being alone forever!”
I must confess, out of all the titles that regularly come through the office here at DVD Movie Central, I had found myself looking more forward to Robinson Crusoe on Mars than most others. I normally anticipate any Criterion disc anyway, but this was the right film at the right time for me. I felt I’d been suffering too much from A-list-itis, and ready to sink my teeth into a cheesy B-grade offering. Or maybe it was the disappointment that my beloved Grindhouse was getting butchered on DVD.
At any rate, I couldn’t wait to pop in this cult classic from 1964 and let my mind go for awhile. For the most part, the experience was just what the doctor ordered. But in close examination, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a tale of two movies. The first half is thoughtful, imaginative and well-delivered. The second, not much so.
It begins with a two man and one monkey Mars probe en route to the red planet, commanded by Colonel Dan McReady (West), along with Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (Mantee). But having to evade a meteor draws them too close to the planet’s gravitational pull…they have to eject.
Unfortunately, Adam West didn’t have his utility belt this time, so he doesn’t survive the emergency procedure, leaving Draper and a monkey named Mona alone on the hostile surface. Fireballs frequently erupt and move around as though they have a mind of their own. The air is so thin, he can only go without his oxygen supply for ten minutes or so at a time. He has a limited amount of air, food and water, and is completely on his own. How will he survive?
The first act of the movie introduces us to the spectacular sights of Mars and follows Draper as he slowly learns how to survive on the foreign world. How he learns to get air for himself, for example, is quite ingenious. Despite being a lower grade production, the science was mostly based on the then-current knowledge of Mars and rocketeering, and doesn’t seem like too far to stretch the imagination.
The second act begins when alien ships appear and begin to bomb the planet with lasers. Draper finds that other-worldly visitors are mining the planet, using slaves. One of the slaves escapes, bringing Draper his first human companion in many months. He dubs this refugee Friday (Lundin).
The rest of the movie involves their attempted escape from the watchful and unfriendly ships, leading them toward the polar ice caps. It culminates in a crash of that ever-circling meteor, turning the ice into a deadly torrent. The concept itself is not so bad, but there are so many repeated shots of those ships arriving, bombing and disappearing, and always from the exact same angles, that the stretch becomes less exciting and more tedious. In fact, the more those ships appear on the screen, the less impressive they become, and started taking me out of the moment time after time.
Had the entire film been that cheesy, I might have enjoyed it on a more base level, but the opening hour actually drew me in and got me involved, and left me disappointed that we didn’t have a better payoff. Director Byron Haskin created a visually sumptuous environment, and the classic story by Daniel Dafoe provided just the right starting point for a science fiction film. But I have a feeling he caved in to thinking he had to have weird crafts and laser blasts to make an entertaining film. He seemed to fall in love with what was arguably the least intriguing part of the story.
I still enjoyed Robinson Crusoe on Mars to a certain extent. It did deliver the off-the-radar B grade entertainment I was hoping for. But it came too close to being a serious, thought-provoking science fiction film in the opening hour, and by then, it was a little late to switch gears and deliver something else.
BONUS TRIVIA: Do the alien ships look a little familiar? They should…they were leftovers from War of the Worlds!
Criterion’s remastered anamorphic transfer scores. The opening space shots, as they do in a lot of movies, show a little bit more grain and aging, but once you get to the planet, it’s a Technicolor dream. The vision of Mars is bright, colorful and detailed throughout, and the visual scheme is one of the movie’s and the disc’s high points.
I rarely score a mono soundtrack this high, but Criterion’s offering is substantially more dynamic than most. Particularly in the scenes where the ships bombard the planet; those are quite lively and loud. Other than that, dialogue is clean and clear throughout and well-balanced against the other effects and music.
The disc delivers well in the extras department, starting with a 1994 commentary track featuring writer Ib Melchior, stars Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, historian Robert Stotak, and pieces of a 1979 interview with Byron Haskin. It’s pieced together, but flows well and offers plenty of good information.
“Destination Mars” is a look at the film compared to the real red planet. There’s a trailer and a stills gallery, plus a newly created music video for Victor Lundin’s song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”. Be warned…it’s the goofiest song imaginable, and it WILL be stuck in your head all day. Rounding out is a DVD ROM feature with excerpts from the original screenplay, which varied somewhat from the final film.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars comes too close to being serious to be regarded as camp, or maybe too close to camp to be taken seriously. It’s a visually delightful B-grade film that mostly delivers, but buckles a little bit under its own low budget excessiveness in the final stretch.