Special-effects wunderkind and genre master Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, The Outer Limits) won a place in the hearts of fantasy-film lovers everywhere with this gorgeously designed journey into the unknown. When his spaceship crash-lands on the barren wastelands of Mars, U.S. astronaut Commander "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee) must fight for survival, with a pet monkey seemingly his only companion. But is he alone? Shot in vast Techniscope and blazing Technicolor, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is an imaginative and beloved techni-marvel of classic science fiction.
Although it is a thoughtful and surprisingly nonexploitative movie, the title Robinson Crusoe on Mars
might conjure up unholy echoes of cross-pollinated genre movies such as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter
or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
. Well, don't worry. This 1964 space epic is in fact an adaptation of the classic Daniel Defoe novel, and it plays fair by logic and science. After his spaceship crash-lands on Mars, astronaut Paul Mantee must figure out how to survive on the hostile planet (shot mostly in Death Valley), aided only by a monkey from his ship. Director Byron (The War of the Worlds
) Haskin's sober approach brings a refreshing emphasis to issues of survival--how many space travel movies have you seen where the traveler tests the air of a distant planet and discovers that, by George, he can breathe just fine? Not this one. Mantee's desperate methods of tracking his air flow and experimenting with methods of breathing are painstakingly explored, and seem like exactly the kind of problems a real planetary voyager would encounter. The second half of the picture cleverly blends Defoe's plot with sci-fi conventions, and the movie never does "dumb down."
The Criterion Collection's DVD of Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a handsome treatment of a minor classic. A commentary track stitches together comments from a variety of participants, including Mantee, Haskin (in a 1979 interview), and original screenwriter Ib Melchior (disagreements between Haskin and Melchoir are included). A featurette, Destination--Mars gives some of the "science fact" behind the movie, and excerpts from Melchoir's original treatment show suggest changes made. And a "music video" puts movie clips alongside a song written and performed by co-star Victor Lundin, a number he developed for his appearances at sci-fi conventions. --Robert Horton