Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Criterion Collection #404: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

By Robert Humanick

It would be unfair to chastise anyone initially skeptical about Robinson Crusoe on Mars, as common experience with sci-fi movies of the pre-Apollo era—particularly those that revel in such purportedly adventurous, borderline cheeseball titles—dictates that one can expect little to nothing more than junkyard production values cobbled together with embarrassingly inconsistent stock footage and location work, most likely with a humanoid/bug-eyed alien to boot. Despite the magnitude of such works as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, and It Came From Outer Space (just to name a few), the genre has been pigeonholed as one of anti-quality; my favorite show of all time though it may be, one could build a substantial argument against Mystery Science Theater 3000 as an oppressive force against this pocket of moviedom, its diamonds in the rough few and far between when one considers the abundant number of Giant Spider Invasion(s) and Devil Fish How refreshing it is, then, for there to emerge a work as well envisioned and fashioned as Robinson Crusoe on Mars, both technically and artistically; modern viewers looking for material to exploit for badness will most likely find more than they know what to do with.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is almost unsurpassed in its scientific accuracy—for 1964. In the year of Dr. Strangelove, we knew very little about the Red Planet that couldn’t be inferred by the telescopically accompanied eye, and so it is with a sense of retrospective camp goodness that we grant the film its hellfire-consumed Martian landscapes, where fireballs roam the surface seemingly with a mind of their own. A few more years of research and progress in the developing space program would revolutionize what we know about our nearest planetary neighbor, but despite the many now-incredible flaws apparent in the film’s science (most obvious: our heroes' ability to temporarily rely on the Martian atmosphere for oxygen—compare that with similar scenes in Total Recall), just as many of the film’s envisioned qualities of the planet prove damn near perfect in their scientific guesswork (namely, the spot-on recreation of Martian landscapes via location work in Death Valley, matte paintings, and carefully constructed sets).

Unlike the many planets of George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, each defined by a singular geographic element (the desert planet of Tatooine, the ice planet of Hoth), Byron Haskin’s Mars is a world of multitudes, from the aforementioned fields ablaze to the arid deserts that seemingly stretch on forever to the bitter cold of the planet’s polar ice cap. Compared with the presentation of space travel and extraterrestrial worlds but four years later in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is apparent that we learned much as a species in a very short period of time, but Robinson Crusoe on Mars still holds up incredibly well, not simply as a time capsule but also for its ability to tap into our cultural intrigue with the Martian landscape. Following in the footsteps of Orson Welles' generation-defining broadcast of H.G. Wells' “War of the Worlds” as well as countless Invaders From Mars-type B movies of the decade prior, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is steeped as much in literary self-awareness as it is in the curiosity-stoking mysteries of the unknown.

After a near-collision with a fiery meteor (another scientific error, inaccurate but fun to watch) forces his ship too far into the Martian orbit to escape the planet’s gravitational pull, U.S. Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) must learn to cope with a near-solitary existence on the unfriendly planet. His fellow crew member Colonel Dan McReady (a surprisingly restrained Adam West) killed upon arrival at the planet's surface, Draper’s only companion is the woolly monkey Mona. Not unlike Robert Zemeckis’ similarly existential Cast Away, Draper must learn to redefine his means of survival, finding new resources of food, water, and air, often in the knick of time before succumbing to the unforgiving elements around him. A religious tone of ongoing salvation accompanies the film’s deliberate, fascinating narrative (as influenced by the thematic undercurrents of Daniel Defoe's original novel), one that is as indebted to Shakespearean seriousness as it is to the campy joys of tongue-in-cheek B movie fare. When a battalion of alien spacecrafts arrives to bombard the planet surface with their laser beams, many viewers will be reminded of Haskin’s own War of the Worlds, with the infamous invaders of that film used as the template for Robinson Crusoe's own extraterrestrial menace, sans protruding death ray. Employing an animation technique in which every other frame of the spaceships is skipped, the film evokes a truly otherworldly creepiness, for the invaders’ technology seems to defy all known laws of physics in their efficiency of speed and motion.

As Draper finds himself getting closer to God/nature on the Martian landscape—just as the original Robinson Crusoe did on a remote tropical island—so too does this film's protagonist come to befriend an escaped prisoner, the novel's cannibalistic natives replaced here by alien miners who cruelly enslave human-like beings for excavation work. Self-consciously, Draper names his newfound companion Friday, and slowly teaches him both English and the notion of a Christian God. Robinson Crusoe on Mars, for reasons both artistically chosen and financially necessitated, is relatively lacking in the visceral indulgences common to many of its brethren; multiple bug-like creatures Draper was supposed to battle were cut from the film in the early stages of production, while a far more complex sequence in which he, Mona and Friday escape the attacking invaders by means of the deep Martian canals was drastically reduced to save on budgetary costs. This reliance on mood and theme, however, elevates the work above almost every other of its kind, and in creating a work of spiritual, rather than physical, focus, Robinson Crusoe on Mars becomes more than just another post-50's sci-fi flick.

***

Image/Sound/Extras: Audio and visual specs are top-notch. The film's dated effects shots are more apparent given the pristine quality of the DVD image, but anyone likely to enjoy the film already knows how to suspend logic amidst such trivialities. Robinson Crusoe practically bursts at the seams with its glorious Technicolor, while sound is crisp and booming throughout (be sure to check out the alien blast ray bombardment on your surround system). As expected, Criterion has loaded this set with special features that—like the film in question—are ready to turn any cineaste into a giddy eight-year-old all over again. Simultaneously most informative and most laborious is the film's multi-participant commentary track (as stated on Criterion's website: "featuring 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"). Assembled from various sources of widely ranging audio qualities, the track is illuminating and probably the best one can expect for a film of this sort, but the piecemeal construction makes it something of a cinematic work out. "Destination Mars," a genuinely informative and infectiously entertaining look at the scientific and cultural background of the film and the Red Planet in general, goes down more smoothly. Screenplay excerpts, a collection of production drawings and promotional materials, the original theatrical trailer and a handy booklet featuring essays by both the filmmaker and space historian Michael Lennick, as well as the original alien dialect created specifically for this film, all amount to icing on this glorious nerdy cake. Special mention goes to the endearing music video created specifically by Criterion for this set, setting folk artist Victor Lundin's song "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" to images from the film.
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House contributor Robert Humanick's writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.

1 comment:

Bunche said...

For those who may be skeptical about this film solely because of its title, everything this reviewer says is true and you will be doing yourself a disservice by skipping it. Intelligent, tense and very moving, I highly recommend ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS to any readers who love quality science-fiction films.