by Tony Dayoub
Criterion reissued Robinson Crusoe on Mars on Blu-ray last week, and it is the first time I see this, I can now say regrettably, ignored classic science fiction film. Many, both fans and non-fans of sci-fi alike, will point to its title as one reason they've chosen to overlook it. It is definitely one reason I kept delaying my own viewing, watching it now only because I was curious as to why Criterion offered this entry in their collection. I'm sad now that I ever waited this long.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is, in many ways, the science fiction film I've always longed for. Though dated, it is neither the B-grade "little green men" film one expects from its high-concept title nor the exploration into humanity's evolution which often forms the foundation for every space film since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is in fact a precursor to Star Trek (1966-1969), a TV series which, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, serves as a transitional chapter in the annals of science fiction between the speculative, fearful movies of the 1950s, and the deeper, humanistic allegories of the late 60s and early 70s.
So imagine this Trekkie's surprise at finding out that its director, Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds), went on to co-produce the first pilot for Star Trek (the more "cerebral" one which starred Jeffrey Hunter before a second action-oriented one was shot with William Shatner as the captain). When I tell you, half-embarrassed and half with pride, that my knowledge of Star Trek is encyclopedic, I mean that I was actually honored to write one of the questions for the latest Star Trek "Scene It?" trivia game. I say all this as background in explaining that even someone as well-versed as I never made the connection between Star Trek and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a lot of it due to the fact that Haskin went uncredited for his contribution to the Star Trek. Yet, one need only look at the film's opening sequence of the Mars lander, the Elinor M, swishing towards the camera before it cuts to it swishing away to see a strong visual influence on Star Trek. And sure enough, actor Paul Mantee confirms Haskin's involvement in the disc's commentary.
But it's more than that. At the heart of this tale is the story of one man's loneliness as he fights for survival in an unpredictable landscape. Mantee—a genial, but quirky leading-man type I know from guest appearances on TV's Mission Impossible—spends a significant part of the picture alone, logging his discoveries, frustrations, and minor successes into a portable recorder... when not talking to the chimp which also survived the unexpected crash into Mars that killed the mission commander (Adam West, showing no sign of the tongue-in-cheek stylings he'd bring to Batman). Haskin and screenwriter Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet) get a lot wrong in their depiction of Mars as a fire-plagued planet in which man can walk unencumbered by a spacesuit so long as he takes a breath of pure oxygen now and then. They also get a lot right. Using the unearthly Death Valley to double for the Martian landscape is a bit of futurism which did ultimately pay off. The equipment Mantee's character hauls around seems designed for scientific use and portability, with no ray-guns in sight (he does carry a pistol for safety).
The expansive vistas also reveal the film's original intentions. According to the commentary on the disc, this was originally supposed to be an epic-length roadshow, something closer to 3 hours than 2, before its budget was slashed. Considering how Haskin and his crew are able to communicate a bit of that with their blue-screen work in Death Valley, judicious use of matte paintings, and a minimum of interior sets doubling for exteriors, it is amazing how much some of that still manages to shine through.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars chickens out at the end, introducing a superfluous storyline where Mantee's character must aid an escaped alien slave (Victor Lundin) he names Friday (like in the Defoe source). But the movie is so enjoyable—particularly with the brilliant colors enhanced by Criterion's Blu-ray reissue and the time-capsule quality of its sometimes amusing, sometimes accurate predictions—I can't help but give it my highest recommendation.