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Robinson Crusoe on Mars
By 1963 America's NASA space program had overtaken science fiction movies about fantastic flights to other planets. Nigel Kneale and Ray Harryhausen placed their First Men In the Moon in H.G. Wells' 1900 era time frame, and didn't do too badly. But with Mercury and Gemini missions part of our daily news, the monsters and nonsense science in writer Ib Melchior's The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the 7th Planet no longer seemed relevant. Melchoir's next project Robinson Crusoe on Mars began as the story of a stranded astronaut coming in contact with yet more monstrous Martians but was eventually rewritten as a much more realistic tale of survival. Caught between silly efforts like Queen of Outer Space and the high budget wonders of the later 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a unique and serious adventure.
A beautiful-looking show filmed on a modest budget, Robinson Crusoe on Mars reunites top talent from the earlier Sci-Fi hit The War of the Worlds. Director Byron Haskin was enjoying a second life in the genre making some of the best episodes of the Outer Limits TV series. Art director Al Nozaki had been a key designer on both of George Pal's Paramount space films, as well as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. With special effects by Lawrence Butler and Albert Whitlock, Haskin's picture had the benefit of big-studio resources usually lacking in movies about outer space. The vegetation-free canyons of Death Valley were used as the surface of Mars.
Given the year that it was made, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is scientifically very impressive. Elinor M's twin landing craft separate and descend much like NASA's later Lunar Excursion Module. Mars presents a grim challenge to the marooned astronaut. Instead of pulp fiction monsters, the resourceful Kit Draper must find the basic necessities of life, just as Defoe's imaginary Crusoe did a hundred years before. Draper carries some practical-looking modular equipment, including a portable video camera identical to a porta-pak from the 1980s.
The version of Mars imagined by screenwriters Melchoir and Higgins does indeed stretch reality. Atmospheric pressure and temperature are cheated to allow Draper to breathe with only periodic boosts of oxygen. The blazing red sky is an impressive effect. Odd fireballs dance on the surface like tumbleweeds. Draper finds rocks that emit oxygen when heated, pools of potable water and plants that yield convenient breakfast sausages. Astronaut Draper is a likeable, essentially fearless American hero in the Mercury program mode. He's trained to do the best he can, and if survival is impossible, he'll leave a sensible record of his experience for the next guy. His only enemy is loneliness, and he suffers some frightening hallucinations.
Then comes Friday, the escaped slave pursued by alien masters, and the fantasy returns to familiar territory. We can tell that the story will be resolved in conventional terms, with no more surprises. The alien slaves are ordinary people in leftover Egyptian slave costumes and wigs suitable for Brazilian natives. The alien masters wear pressure suits from Destination Moon, while their space mining ships are re-cast Martian war machines from War of the Worlds. Draper and Friday successfully elude the aliens by hiding in vast Martian tunnels beneath the surface depressions once called canals. Instead of battles and conflict, the film concentrates on the fugitives' growing relationship. Draper and Friday find mutual understanding and save one another from additional natural dangers. Friday proves to be a standard noble primitive, sharing his precious 'oxygen pills' with Draper. He soon learns to communicate in English. While the soundtrack slips into church organ music, the comrades discuss the nature of God. Robinson Crusoe on Mars goes to another world to deliver familiar moral lessons.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars didn't click with film audiences. Indifferent distribution was blamed, but it's also probable that the public preferred to see their astronauts on the 6 O'Clock News. I remember our grammar school teachers cramming a hundred kids into one room to watch a Gemini space walk on TV. A couple of seasons later Sci-Fi fans would embrace the big-concept TV show Star Trek, with its 'Great Society' mission to extend Earthly influence across outer space with peace-loving warships. The Enterprise presented a good example for competing alien cultures while carrying a big stick. Now that's the kind of space saga that might find a following.
Criterion's disc of Robinson Crusoe on Mars offers an exceptionally good transfer, allowing us to appreciate the fine effects work originally done in the 2-perf Techniscope process. Although some of the matte paintings representing the weird Martian landscapes aren't very convincing, the film's look is remarkably consistent, with almost undetectable rear-screen effects.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui replicates most of the laserdisc's extras. Veteran special effects artist and film researcher/author Robert Skotak provides much of the structure for an interesting edited commentary, joining actors Vic Lundin and Paul Mantee, writer Ib Melchoir and the late Albert Nozaki. Archived statements from director Byron Haskin appear as well. Paul Mantee's remarks on his starring role are thoughtful and balanced. Nozaki explains how his happy career in the Paramount art department was interrupted by Pearl Harbor. Melchoir complains about the changes to his original screenplay and scoffs at the many burning objects in the oxygen-challenged Mars atmosphere. The story stipulates that some oxygen is present, and who's to say that the fire isn't chemically fed, like a magnesium flare?
Excerpts of Melchoir's script are available as a DVD-Rom extra, along with fat galleries of preproduction sketches and the usual stills and trailers. Actor/singer Victor Lundin recorded a song about the movie, which is presented in the form of a music video. Michael Lennick's featurette compares the fanciful Mars of 1964 with four decades' worth of new information. The attractive cover evokes the look of a 1950s Sci-Fi paperback.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Robinson Crusoe on Mars rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Vic Lundin, Paul Mantee, Albert Nozaki, Robert Skotak and (archived) Byron Haskin; Screenplay excerpts, music video, galleries of photos, art, concepts, trailer, essay by Michael Lennick, Melchior's Yargorian Dictionary.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 16, 2007
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