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Robinson Crusoe on Mars - Criterion Collection

Classics movie directed by Byron Haskin

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Exceptional Release Gives This 60's Era Trip to the Red Planet Great Exposure

  • Apr 1, 2014
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This is no joke: as a huge fan of science fiction films, I’d heard plenty about ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS throughout the years.  The simple truth of the matter is that I’d just never gotten around to watching it.  It hadn’t popped up on my TV guide in years; and although it showed as a title available at my corner video store the flick never seemed to be in.  Perhaps others were doing as I had intended – finally scored a copy and were taking it all in – so I finally broke down and purchased the Criterion Blu-ray release and gave it a spin.  I’m delighted that I finally did, and I’m even more excited to report that – except for a few narrative blemishes – I loved it.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters.  If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment.  If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
When their spaceship ends up caught in gravitational limbo, two astronauts and one chimpanzee have no choice but to blast away in separate escape pods down to the surface of Mars.  A terrible mishap with a treacherous landing leaves only Commander ‘Kit’ Draper (played by Paul Mantee) and his pet monkey alive down on the surface.  Low on air and low on rations, they’ll stop at nothing to find some way to adapt to the harsh environment or die trying.  However, when they come face-to-face with an aggressive race mining the barren world for its natural resources, Kit will find an unlikely ally in an escaped slave, and, together, they’ll race to survive against all odds, hoping that they’ll someday be rescued before it’s too late!
The story is essentially little more than a sci-fi spin on the old “Robinson Crusoe” yarn, not that there’s anything wrong with being derivative.  As we’ve all been told, there are only so many stories that can be told, so everything essentially evolves from something else.  Setting the tale of a wayward castaway holed up and simply trying to survive on the Red Planet is inspiration enough; building on it by postulating events from Martian history as well as an encounter with both an enemy and a friendly race only adds other layers worth exploring.
What MARS offers though is an extremely solid look at what science fiction films of the 1960’s looked like.  The special effects are terrific, and only a handful of them truly look all that dated.  (In some respects, that’s largely part of the charm of watching some of these older flicks.)  But the vast desolation of the Martian landscape is perfectly captured in wonderful widescreen detail.  Of course, several sequences of obvious photo-composed, but they work to serve the purpose of the narrative just fine.  The opening spaceflight sequences appear to be animated, and they look probably as smart today as they did on the big screen back in 1964.
As far as the narrative goes, it would be easy to nitpick a few points of story development and execution.  I could miss my guess, but the warmonger species fly crafts with more than a passing similarity to the Martian vessels depicted WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) … and that’s probably because director Byron Haskin was also responsible for that singular sci-fi flick.  While the species depicted is basically in the shape of man (versus the squat, tentacled things from 1953), I found it an entirely acceptable substitution, especially given this film’s themes.  Also, the slave Friday (played by Victor Lundin) is also basically a man, and one wonders whether the producers simply didn’t want to invest any additional money on make-up and prosthetics to craft a race aesthetically different from Earthlings.  It would’ve been nice, but it isn’t a distraction.
Also, the film essentially comes to a conclusion (I won’t spoil it, but I’m sure you can probably guess).  Other elements – the aliens in hot pursuit throughout the last half-hour – aren’t given any further explanation.  Instead, the story simple ends.  I suspect some might feel as if the story by IB Melchior and John Higgins should’ve been required to answer some of the questions about these other races and what should’ve happened next; while it would’ve been nice, I can say that other films of this era tend to take that easy way out as well – resolve the main conflict, then fade-to-black – which is part of why I think ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS works so well to represent its era.
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) is produced by Aubrey Schenck Productions as Devonshire Productions.  DVD distribution for this release was handled by the fine, fine folks at the Criterion Collection.  As for the technical specifications, wow!  This feature looks and sounds superb; except for a few effects sequences that are more than a bit dated, it otherwise holds up remarkably well as a signature piece depicting what sci-fi could look like at this time.  Lastly, if it’s special features you’re looking for, then this Blu-Ray Special Edition release should give you plenty of reasons to be excited: this is a restored high-definition digital transfer; there’s an audio commentary with cast and crew; a featurette exploring the film’s depicted science; an associated music video; stills; the theatrical trailer; and a collector’s booklet with an essay, Martian vocabulary, and more.  It’s a terrific assortment for fans of the film.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  It may not be perfect, but ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is still a heck’of’a lotta fun.  It looks terrific on this Blu-ray from Criterion.

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More Robinson Crusoe on Mars - Crit... reviews
review by . May 02, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
What I like so much about Robinson Crusoe on Mars is its no nonsense approach. Even though it takes place on Mars it is very much about human problems, about the need for self-sufficiency and the equally compelling need for companionship. The astronaut spends most of the first half of the film just trying to work out the problem of how to live on Mars -- and it holds my attention throughout. Once he has solved that problem, his real problem is how to live alone. He needs a companion, someone to …
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops".   … more
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Although it is a thoughtful and surprisingly nonexploitative movie, the titleRobinson Crusoe on Marsmight conjure up unholy echoes of cross-pollinated genre movies such asJesse James Meets Frankenstein's DaughterorSanta 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 ...

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Director: Byron Haskin
Genre: Classics
DVD Release Date: September 18, 2007
Runtime: 110 minutes
Studio: Criterion Collection
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