• Robinson Crusoe on Mars



    Released by: Eureka
    Released on: November 23, 2015
    Directed by: Byron Haskin
    Cast: Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West, Barney the Wooley Monkey
    Year: 1964

    The Movie:

    A near-collision with a meteor forces astronauts Christopher “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan McReady (Adam West) to make an emergency landing on Mars. McReady is killed, leaving Draper and a flight-test monkey named Mona (Barney the Wooly Monkey) to fend for themselves on a planet without the requisite amount of oxygen to sustain human life. Thankfully, Draper inadvertently discovers a strange geological phenomenon, rocks that spew oxygen when heated, to sustain him in the cave he and Mona calls home. Mona also leads him to an underground supply of food and fresh water. As time goes by, he begins to crack from the isolation, imagining McReady as a kind of zombie stalker, but when he finds the skeleton of a murdered alien, he realizes that the Red Planet may be home to sinister activities beyond his imagination. Sure enough, he soon spies a spaceship landing over the horizon. He pinpoints the area and observes near-naked humanoids forced to mine the land for other, weirdly attired humanoids. One of the captives (Victor Lundin) attempts an escape and is assisted by Draper; the two are pursued but manage to hide. Draper names his newfound friend “Friday” and teaches him to speak English as they prepare for the return of the slavers.

    By the early 1960s, the Space Race was well under way. Both Russia and the United States had sent men into the outer thermosphere, and both superpowers were working on an even greater mission: to land men on Earth’s only orbiting satellite, the moon. The competition proved a boon to the fourth estate, which played up the adversarial aspects of the race, boosting spending and ensuring that a slew of Hollywood films would get there first. Among them were From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and First Men in the Moon (1964). Ib Melchior had a different idea when crafting Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Thinking bigger, he moved the race much farther out than the moon and shifted the action into the future. He also found inspiration in classic literature.

    Daniel Defoe’s epistolary novel Robinson Crusoe, about the sole survivor of a shipwreck who is stranded on a deserted island, was first published in 1719 to both critical acclaim and worldwide success. Melchior took Defoe’s basic story and melded it into an outer space opus, closely following the action but with updated settings and motivations. For the most part, it works, thanks largely to Byron Haskin’s efficient direction. Haskin had directed a number of successful science fiction films in the past, including The War of the Worlds (1953), Conquest of Space (1955), and the aforementioned From the Earth to the Moon (1958). Yet, unable to secure backing for his and Melchior’s take on Robinson Crusoe, he procured private backing and shot the film on a relatively low budget. The film completed, it was picked up by Paramount, but, despite a major push, it didn’t sit well with audiences and tanked at the box office. It later found an audience in truncated form on late-night television and on home video. Today, it’s remembered fondly, despite being overly long and at times repetitious. Haskin certainly achieved an expensive and picturesque look, and Mantee proved a charismatic leading man, making it all the stranger that his film career never took off, leaving him to make the exit to television drama.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars comes to Blu-ray and DVD in Great Britain courtesy of Eureka’s Classics line, which has released the film with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high resolution. Presented in its original 2.35:1, aspect ratio, Winton C. Hoch’s cinematography is finally given the treatment it deserves in what is, not surprisingly, a generally superb transfer. For the most part, the image is gorgeous, with beautiful color reproduction (the film benefits from innumerable green and red color gels) and strong detail. Much of the film’s Martian setting was shot in Death Valley National Park in California, which is given a slightly reddish tint for effect; the rocky terrain not only provides the perfect setting for the tale, but it also offers the kind of imagery Blu-ray does so well by. Seeing the film with such terrific resolution, one realizes just how well the set designer matched the artificial interiors to the real-life exteriors. Adding to the filmic look is just the right touch of grain, which is neither scrubbed free nor too strong. If there’s any complaint about the image—and it’s one Eureka could hardly have helped—it’s that the film’s special effects sequences, which employ a great deal of opticals and mattes, don’t look as strong as the rest of the picture. Regardless, and despite its claim to the science fiction genre, much of the film was shot with practical effects, and the few instances in which special effects shots optical in nature were done so either when spacecraft is present or when composites were utilized to make the film appear much bigger than it actually was. There’s virtually no crush, and no noise reduction appears to have been applied. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is about as handsome as a film can get.

    Audio is on par with the film’s video. Eureka has gone with a fairly vibrant English LPCM 2.0 track. Dialogue is always easy to follow; when there are sound effects (the weaponry of the spaceships, the resulting explosions, etc.), they sound great and never interfere with the dialogue. There’s also no hiss or pops. From monkey screeches to the film’s score, the audio is a well-modulated, robust, and pleasing experience. The film also includes subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired (what few there are; the film is mostly dialogue free). The subtitles are white but surrounded by a thin black line, making them stand out in brightly lit scenes. There’s also an audio commentary (likewise presented in English LPCM 2.0) from film historian and special effects designer Robert Skotak. Recorded specifically for this release, the commentary is hosted by Michael Felsher. The commentary begins with a discussion of Skotak’s Oscar-winning film career as well as his work as a writer. Among the filmmaker’s written work is the biography Ib Melchior: Man of Imagination, published by Midnight Marquee Press. As for the remainder of the commentary, it discusses everything a fan would want to know about Crusoe, from the film’s cast to its crew.

    Apart from the commentary, the only other extra is the film’s original theatrical trailer. Running four minutes, it proclaims, “This film is scientifically authentic. It is only one step ahead of present reality!” So authentic it was—and so close to present reality—that we have yet to step foot on Mars, though the film does offer the sort of thrills that provided a template for Andy Weir’s self-published 2011 novel The Martian and its subsequent, mega-successful film adaptation.

    The Final Word:

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a fun film, an entertaining science-fiction rendering of one of literature’s great adventure classics. Mantee impresses in the lead, and Haskin’s broad strokes are as masterly as they ever were. Eureka has brought the film to Blu-ray and DVD with a gorgeous transfer and fine audio. Felsher’s Red Shirt-produced commentary and the theatrical trailer round out what proves to be a pleasant diversion for those interested in yesteryear’s attempt at stranding an American astronaut on Mars in “realistic” fashion.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s) is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!