AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 23rd November, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper and Colonel Dan McReady reach the Red Planet in their spaceship, Mars Gravity Probe 1. Forced to take evasive action to avoid a fiery meteor, their ship ends up low on fuel and stuck in an endless orbit around Mars. Out of options, they’re forced to eject and crash land on the planet’s surface in hopes to radio for help. With only their flight test monkey Mona for company, Draper finds out how to extract heat and oxygen from coal-like rocks, but on one of his excursions he finds McCready dead, killed by the impact of his landing….
“This film is scientifically accurate – it is only one step ahead of present reality” said the poster for this film, and it’s hard to avoid a chuckle when watching it in 2015 as it’s quite fantastical indeed, though of course they didn’t know nearly as much about Mars as they did when they made this year’s hit The Martian. Watching Ridley Scott’s thoroughly enjoyable return to form, I couldn’t help but think of Robinson Crusoe On Mars. I hadn’t seen it since I was about ten, but had distinct memories of a scene which really creeped me out, though I wasn’t entirely sure if it was from this film. More on that later. One of those films which can’t help but be very dated, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is best enjoyed not as a realistic space movie [if you do try to do so you’ll soon find it almost impossible to suspend disbelief] but as a rather bold science fiction adventure full of charm and warmth, it also working very well as a transplanting of Daniel Defoe’s novel, daringly imaginative but also retaining a surprisingly large amount of its storyline and themes. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the Scott picture, even taking into account the time it was made, but it is a fun and mostly well crafted film, if one that goes downhill a little in its final third. In actuality, I reckon a more useful comparison would be with the 1985 Enemy Mine which really does deserve to be considered a remake.
This film was originally planned as a much longer and more expensive picture, with the original script featuring a variety of alien beings. Even Friday was intended to have alien characteristics. When the budget was cut, Ib Melchior’s screenplay was rewritten by David C. Higgins and made much low key and realistic [well, up to a point!]. The production was a reunion of sorts for folk who worked on director Byron Haskin’s version of The War Of The Worlds, and even borrowed the design of the Martian spaceships from that film, while the alien spacesuits were reused from Destination Moon. Stars Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin invented much of the alien dialect by using words derived from the Mayan language, because of the commonly held belief that Mayans were descendants of alien visitors, while the monkey wasn’t actually originally intended to make agonised gestures at certain moments: however, it began to imitate star Victor Lundin, and these moments were shot and used as they made sense in the context of the story. With exteriors shot at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, California, Robinson Crusoe On Mars was expected to be a big success and a sequel entitled Robinson Crusoe in the Invisible Galaxy was even planned, but, billed in some places with the ‘B’ western Law Of The Lawless, it was a commercial disappointment, partly due to limited publicity.
I’d totally forgotten that the one and only Adam West was in this, and it looks like he’s going to be the star at first, the emphasis being on him while Paul Mantee seems almost like light relief in a nice example of misdirection. The opening shots of their rocket either whizzing towards the viewer or away from him or her may make some modern viewers laugh – the craft is virtually see-through at times – while Mars, if red in places, isn’t nearly red enough, but it’s soon easy to forget about things like this as the story becomes involving very quickly. What with West’s character soon found dead, it’s up to Mantee to take centre stage. He’s no Matt Damon, in fact he’s not even a Dennis Quaid, but he does do a good job of helping to hold the viewer’s attention as his character goes about trying to survive. Of course he’s not entirely alone, Mona the monkey being around, but the film mostly avoids pandering to kids with easy laughs and easy sentimentality concerning the primate, who actually looks uncomfortable throughout. Draper finds out he’s able to make fire, oxygen and even water from rocks, which may sound silly but is actually considered possible by some, if not always in the manner depicted in the film, while it’s clever how, for example, he constructs a crude sand alarm clock to awaken him for periodic doses of oxygen. Also great is the idea of having the unmanned, derelict mother ship periodically screaming across the Martian night sky to haunt and taunt the astronaut. And eventually comes that scene. Draper hears and sees a shadow knocking at the entrance to his cave. When he goes to investigate, there’s nobody there, but when he turns round he sees his dead companion, except he’s totally emotionless and doesn’t even speak. Now this may sound like nothing considering what you can get in supposedly kid-friendly movies nowadays, but it sure unsettled and haunted me for years and still packs a frisson.
In a way I suppose you have to like films which mostly feature just one main character to really enjoy Robinson Crusoe On Mars. I love watching them myself so I was constantly absorbed by this one, though the pace is admittedly much slower than you would get today. Then, not long after about half way through, the movie gradually becomes more fantastical [it’s rather convenient that Draper finds a great source of food and clothing] and eventually introduces laser-firing spaceships [and those sleek, angular crafts first seen in 1953 still look great, though they don’t actually seem to belong to actual Martians anymore], aliens enslaving other aliens, and lots of chasing around as Draper encounters his Man Friday-type character [he even refers to Defoe when he names him Friday]. All this does provide excitement, though it’s still somewhat minimalist in nature, the budget clearly not stretching to showing the bad aliens outside of their suits, while the enslaved beings more resemble ancient Egyptians than anything else. I enjoyed this section, and felt the emotion in the growing relationship between Draper and Friday [as per the book, the hero assumes the role of ‘boss’ right away and immediately sets about teaching his companion English with no attempt to learn his language], but I didn’t feel that it was on quite as high a level as the earlier portion of the film, and the picture gets rather rushed towards the end and decides to end very suddenly, even if it finishes with one of the most gorgeous matte paintings you may be likely to see.
You can see the joins in many of the old-school special effects, though I wish that today’s CG-crammed blockbusters would utilise more of these kinds of techniques, and I still like watching the variety in them and appreciating the craftsmanship in them myself. I don’t think that anyone will disagree with me in saying that one of the main reasons that, to take an obvious example, the original Star Wars trilogy is so much more of a richer experience than the Star Wars prequel trilogy is because so much of it was realised with practical effects while the effects in the latter was done almost entirely with computers. More jarring is how this film makes Mars far more hospitable than I reckon was even thought at the time, though things like the Martian sky being constantly red during the day and partially red at night, the periodic floating fireballs, and the green and pink crystals being encased in rock add atmosphere, visual beauty, and a sense of the exotic. Some of the sets reminded me of those in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and this film has some of the same feel, a similar sense of wonder, a similar sense of adventure, and a similar positivity. When the film ends, you’re still left with a perhaps naïve sense of awe about space travel, and being on another planet. It has inspired and propelled the imagination.
The score by Nathan Van Cleave is often evocative and knows when to hold back, though there is some extremely poor editing in the film [there’s a very funny Ed Wood-style sequence with back and forth changes from day to night], suggesting that this aspect of the production were rushed. I do think that, with a bit more time and care given to it, it could have been a true science fiction classic. As it stands, it’s still an immensely likeable film that is a fascinating bridge between the ‘realistic’ and the ‘pulpy’ sides of screen science fiction. I was enjoying it so much that I only asked myself questions like – how the hell do Draper’s batteries last so long? – after it had finished.
Eureka Entertainment have released Robinson Crusoe On Mars on Blu-ray in the UK with the same transfer used by Criterion for their Region ‘A’ disc. Certain shots show slight damage but overall the film looks marvellous, especially considering the amount of matte work it contains. That release’s multi-person commentary [originally on the laserdisc] and documentary don’t appear on Eureka’s set, but the new commentary that is on it is very worthwhile indeed.
*Stunning 1080p high-definition transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*Exclusive new audio commentary with special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian, Robert Skotak
*Original theatrical trailer
*28-PAGE BOOKLET featuring a new essay by author Paul McAuley, and rare archival imagery.