Directed by Byron Haskin
Studio: Criterion (Paramount)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: September 18, 2007
Review Date: September 17, 2007
On paper, Robinson Crusoe on Mars sounds like it might be the cheesiest movie ever made, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself totally engrossed and thoroughly charmed by much of this film. Yes, the science on view in the movie seems painfully naïve now in view of the various Mars probes which have successfully reported to us what’s really there, but that’s the wrong way to approach this movie. As an adventure tale based on a classic story but set on a faraway planet rather than a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is first-rate entertainment.
Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) is the sole survivor of a Mars space mission when his space capsule crashes on the surface. Along with pet monkey Mona, Draper’s primary concerns become finding air, food, and water in order to prolong his survival until help can come. Some lucky discoveries save his life, and an alien presence on the planet provides him with his man Friday (Victor Lundin), as escaped slave running for his life from his captors. Now, both men begin a bonding ritual that may prolong their lives but might also lead to both of their deaths if the aliens find the duo.
Shot in Death Valley which makes a more than adequate stand-in for the surface of Mars, the movie is absorbing even before Friday makes his appearance. Draper’s constant struggles to rig ways to prolong his life keep us completely immersed in his plight, and each new discovery acts as a tonic for the audience to keep us engaged and invested in his survival.
Mantee makes a thoroughly likeable leading man, completely able to dominate the screen when he’s the only human actor present, and then later working in a realistic partnership with the alien he’s trying to help (and who helps him in return). Lundin as Friday isn’t bad but isn’t as thoroughly alien as one might have expected. Adam West makes a brief appearance as the doomed colonel in the Mars space mission. Woolly Monkey (actualy a male monkey named Barney) as Mona also adds immeasurably to the entertainment value of this obviously low budget but still entertaining enterprise.
In fact, the low budget really isn’t an obstacle to the entertainment value of the picture. What‘s more, its rather obvious optical effects, matte paintings, and stock footage only give the film a quaint charm that is hard to resist. Director Byron Haskin keeps things moving well, and interest never flags even with the rather endless alien attacks near the end of the movie.
The Techniscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio is captured in a brilliant anamorphic transfer. There isn’t a speck to be seen anywhere on this 40+ year old film, and the Technicolor flesh tones couldn’t be more beautiful or lifelike. The blacks of space blend completely into the letterbox bars, and fine object detail is superb. Yes, there’s grain to be seen in the opticals and stock volcano footage, but that’s to be expected. Fans of this film have never seen it looking this pristine. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track sounded a bit treble-heavy in the early going, but soon thereafter, the sound becomes robust and surprisingly full-bodied for a mono mix of this age. No clicks, pops, or crackle were heard. It’s a solid mono track.
An audio commentary carried over from the laserdisc release of this title features writer Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, designer Al Nozaki, historian Robert Skotak, and director Byron Haskin in a patchwork compilation of comments about making the movie. The contributors are open and honest about their work, and it’s a most enjoyable commentary track.
“Destination: Mars” is a 19-minute featurette detailing the accuracy and inaccuracy of the science in the picture to what was actually known at the time about Mars. It’s presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Actor Victor Lundin composed a title song for him to sing at science fiction fan conventions and which was included on his 2000 album Little Owl. That stereo vocal is fashioned into a music video using edited clips from the movie in a 4-minute presentation.
A stills gallery offers a wide variety of sketches, storyboards, and notes on the making of the picture from its earliest incarnations to the poster art for the finished film.
The 4-minute theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic video and also contains an alternate commentary track and another alternate track of the audio title song.
Script excerpts from Ib Melchior’s original treatment of the story are available on the disc for computer download and reading by Adobe Acrobat Reader.
An enclosed 14-page booklet offers a critical analysis and celebration of the film by writer-director Michael Lennick (who also made the documentary included in this set) and two pages of suggestions from Ib Melchior’s treatment concerning the alien dialect used in the film and some known facts about Mars in 1963.
If you’re a fan of classic science fiction, you’re already undoubtedly aware of this little gem. For those who might have resisted giving the film a try based on the title, put away your prejudices and rent Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It’s an entertaining and even memorable example of how a good story is open to many different adaptations and interpretations.