Monday, March 21, 2011

Movie Monday: Robinson Crusoe On Mars

This week's Movie Monday subject is the underrated 1964 sci-fi adventure Robinson Crusoe on Mars!

I had never seen this film until the 90s, when it was released on a Criterion laser disc featuring some beautiful jacket art and some stills that made it look really interesting to me. Criterion didn't usually put their brand on "B" sci-fi films, so its inclusion told me there was something special about this film.
The film opens in a space ship as it orbits Mars. The first person we see and hear is none other than...Adam West!!
West plays astronaut Dan MacRedy, recording a mission log. Moments later we're introduced to his fellow astronaut, Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee), as well as their quasi-mascot, a chimp named Mona.

In order to avoid a meteor, their ship uses all its fuel, leaving them stuck in orbit. Having no choice but to land on the Mars surface, they each depart, but McRedy is killed in a crash, leaving Draper all alone...the first--and only--man on Mars.

Right here the film is tweaking with our expectations: West is introduced first, and he's certainly the more typical leading man. You think he's going to be the main character, only to be killed off, a little dramatic sleight of hand Alien would use to great effectiveness in the next decade.
Draper learns to survive on the harsh Martian terrain. He determines how much air, food, and water he has left, recording a log for posterity. He figures he only has a few days worth of air left, even if he sleeps most of the time.

Strangely, Mona the monkey seems to not require food or water, disappearing for hours at a time. He follows her, seeing she has discovered an underground pond. With the additional realization that a particular type of rock, when burned, gives off oxygen,
Draper realizes he has the ability to stay alive for a while.

This film, directed by War of the Worlds' Byron Haskin, features some very beautiful images. Combining sets with matte paintings and back projection, some of the more quiet passages (like when
Draper wanders the surface of the planet) are visually striking:
Draper goes looking for McRedy, assuming he has landed somewhere else on the planet and is surviving as well. But when he finds McRedy's crashed ship, he finds his friend did not survive:
Now utterly alone, Draper starts to go a little mad, driven to fits of anger every time his "floating supermarket" (his ship, still in orbit) flies past.

At one point, McRedy walks into
Draper's cave, leaving him overjoyed, not even questioning how this could have happened. When McRedy just stands there, completely silent, its only then that Draper realizes he's hallucinating.
Months pass, and during one of his walks he finds a rock sitting in an unnatural position. Under it is a skeleton's hand, wearing a black bracelet. Determining that this creature was murdered, Draper suddenly realizes he may not be so alone, ordering his orbiting ship to self-destruct to hide his presence.

Shortly thereafter, Draper sees a ship begin to land. At first thinking its a rescue ship, he's shocked to see its an alien ship, presiding over a pack of slaves who are being forced to mine. One of the slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes, and Draper takes him in:
By the bracelet he wears, Draper realizes just who this guy is. Naming him Friday (of course), Draper begins teaching his new friend English.

In a film filled with visual delight, its the appearance of Friday that, to me, is the only letdown: his costume is bare bones, looking like it was off the rack at the studio costume department. Maybe a little more visual punch would have been appropriate.

Anyway, Draper and Friday learn to like each other, and become friends. Friday even introduces Draper to air pills, which provide oxygen. Later, the alien ships (looking similar to the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds, a coincidence?) return, tracking Friday by his bracelet.

They blow up Draper's cave, forcing them to run through the canals of Mars, which aren't the safest of places:
Draper rescues Friday from the sort-of quicksand, and they eventually run all the way to Mars' ice caps, building a small shelter. While hidden from the alien ships, Draper manages to cut off Friday's bracelet. Just when things are looking up, a meteor crashes nearby, melting much of the ice caps.

But then, Draper sees a ship in the distance. When he hears a human voice over his radio, he realizes its a ship from Earth coming to rescue him!:
As Mars recedes in the distance, we reach...The End!

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a lot of fun, filled with solid performances (one, really) and some gorgeous visuals. Like Cast Away decades later, it gambles that we'll want to follow just this one person for a long time, and actor Paul Mantee pulls it off. Why he didn't become a bigger star after this is a mystery to me (and kind of to him, too, as he mentions on the DVD commentary track)--an actor couldn't ask for a better showcase than a movie like this.

The film leaves a lot of things unanswered, which is also pretty atypical for 50s/60s sci-fi: who are these aliens, exactly? Where are they from? The fact that there isn't some giant space battle at the end is another example of this film being a bit different tonally than a lot of other sci-fi movies of the time.

I've watched Robinson Crusoe on Mars several times now, and I'm always charmed by its simple story and wonderful visuals. Definitely offbeat, it rewards sci-fi fans who want something a little different.

My original intention was to do profiles of several Mars-themed movies all in a row, but at one post a week that would tie Movie Monday up for months. So while I'm going to cover something else next week, pretty soon we'll be returning to the red planet!


aquaman said...

This has been one of my faves for a long time. I remember seeing it in the theaters when I was a kid and was fascinated!

Unknown said...

Hi--I absolutely love your review. I also cannot understand why Paul Mantee did not become a HUGE star as a result of this film--he basically carries the entire picture and does a terrific job of it. The Van Cleave soundtrack is also an absolute joy. As far as I am concerned, "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" is a CLASSIC and is one of the best films ever made.

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