Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Blu-ray)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 11, 2011
Review Date: January 2, 2011
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. And its naiveté about the scientific aspects of Mars, outer space travel, and aliens is clearly a part of its charm and not a detriment at all.
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), an 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 who want to track down their slave 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 which is a good hour into the picture. 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. The special effects aren’t anything to write home about, sometimes appearing repetitive and cartoony, but the set design for various locales on the Martian surface is interestingly conceived and executed.
Paul 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). Victor Lundin as Friday isn’t bad but isn’t as thoroughly alien as one might have expected. The bond between the two men seems palpable, however, and its inevitable outcome is touching. 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 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While flesh tones are very appealing and color values on the whole are solid, reds do seem to be a bit noisy, and sharpness varies throughout the movie with long shots especially prone to softness and a lack of detail. Black levels vary too with early scenes showing off blacks that are not as rich and inky as later in the movie. The print used for the transfer is clean and artifact free, another feature in the transfer’s favor. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is very typical for its era. There is a definite lack of bass in the earlier parts of the movie though later explosions and shots from those circling spacecraft carry some power. No clicks, pops, and crackle are to be heard while dialogue has been generally well recorded though occasional ADR dialogue is noticeable. It’s a solid mono track but not an exemplary one.
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 1080i.
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 in 1080i.
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 1080p and also contains an alternate commentary track by sci-fi memorabilia collector Marc Zubatkin and another alternate track of the audio title song.
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.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
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 in its new Blu-ray incarnation. It’s an entertaining and even memorable example of how a good story is open to many different adaptations and interpretations. Recommended!