Friday, August 2, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Directed by: Byron Haskin.
Written by: John C. Higgins & Ib Melchior based on the novel by Daniel Defoe.
Starring: Paul Mantee (Cmdr. Christopher 'Kit' Draper), Victor Lundin (Friday), Adam West (Col. Dan McReady), The Wooley Monkey (Mona).

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is about as cheesy as you expect a movie with that title to be. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, and at times genuinely moving. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, who directed on the great 1950s sci-fi films, The War of Worlds, and before that had been an F/X guru in the 1940s, and before that, had worked as a cinematographer stretching back to the silent era. The visual look of Robinson Crusoe on Mars, shot in California’s Death Valley, is eerie. Using the clear blue sky as a natural blue screen, Haskin makes Mars’ sky red and foreboding. Strangely, Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of a man trapped alone of the desert island makes an easy transition to Mars. This may not be a great film, but it’s an interesting one.

The film opens with Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and his partner Dan McReady (Adam West), alongside their trusty monkey Mona, circling Mars in the hope of gathering information about it. But something goes wrong, and then have to eject in their pods while they let the ship orbit. Their plan is to rejoin their ship when they are out of danger. But they have to take separate ones down, and while Kit makes it, his crashes, so it won’t be of use later. McReady isn’t even that lucky. So Kit has to spend his time on Mars alone, with no one but Mona to keep him company. At first, he thinks his death is inevitable – it’s only a matter of time before he runs out of air, water and food. But eventually, he’ll figure out how to get what he needs to survive on Mars. Companionship is what he really needs though, and Mona simply isn’t enough. He starts to go a little mad – but is essentially rescued when he meets Friday (Victor Lundin), essentially a slave on Mars used for mining. His odd appearance, making him look like an Egyptian in the time of the Pharaohs, is off-putting at first, but Lundin wins you over. We never see the actual Martians who have enslaved them – just their ships, which look almost exactly like the ones in War of the Worlds, but move with a herky jerky motion that is distracting, but memorable. They can track Friday through the bracelets they have forced him to wear. But Kit is determined to not let them catch his new friend – and the three of them (including Mona, of course), try to outrun them.

I admit, when the movie started, I thought I was in trouble. The opening scenes, on the ship, are not very good – marred by the ham-fisted acting by West in particular. West redeems himself later, when he appears as a creepy apparition to Kit, but those first scenes were not good. Once we get to Mars however, the movie picks up. Mantee was a fairly young, inexperienced actor when he made this film, but he does a great job, with a difficult role. As we have seen time and again, it’s hard for an actor when he’s the only one on screen for an extended period of time – they have no one to act off of. Though Mona the Monkey is clearly a talented monkey actor, she isn’t much help. And just when things start to become a little dull, Friday comes in, and saves the final act.

The film isn’t great – it won’t live in my memory like The War of the Worlds does. But it is well made, visually appealing from start to finish, with many creative special effects and carried by Mantee’s performance. You most likely already know if you want to see a movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.

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