Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)


*. I’ve had occasion to mention the Criterion effect before: how a release from the prestige DVD label lends an air of respectability to what may be marginal or mediocre title. I think Criterion does a great job kitting out classic, and even some marginal, titles with nice restorations and extras, but there have been a number of times when I’ve raised my eyebrow at some new addition to their catalogue.
*. One such movie is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a largely forgotten Sci-Fi flick from the 1960s that might have remained forgotten without any great loss.
*. The critical voices have to work very hard selling this one. To take one example, much is made of how accurate a vision of Mars this was, at a time when the planet had yet to be explored. This echoes the lobby cards, that in typically breathless manner proclaimed the film to be “scientifically authentic!” I don’t think it does more than nod in this direction. Yes, Mars is a dusty, red planet. But why, as Ib Melchior notes with some disgust on the DVD commentary, does Draper have to blow oxygen on his dried paper to start a fire when the entire surface of the planet is alive with flames and fireballs? And why does Draper take the oxygen tank from the monkey Mona, saying he could sure use it, without any concern for the fact that she might need it too? Did someone really think it would be an effective compensation for Draper to blow air into Mona’s face?


*. I can’t believe that Mona (actually a male woolly monkey named Barney wearing a diaper) had a fun time on this shoot. No animal likes people blowing in their face. And I felt sorry for him being dragged around with a string tied around his neck.
*. I mentioned Ib Melchior, the screenwriter. He had quite a bizarre list of credits. Among other things, he co-wrote Reptilicus (shudder), did the screenplay for Bava’s Planet of the Vampires(which was the inspiration for Alien), and wrote the short story “The Racer” that Death Race 2000 was based on.
*. The critical voices on the commentary play up how good it looks. Again, I disagree. The matte paintings are often poor (the one of the polar ice cap strikes me as particularly bad), and the special effects shoddy. In addition, much of the look of the film was borrowed, quite literally. The alien spaceships are just leftovers from The War of the Worlds, which was also directed (at least nominally) by Byron Haskin, but over ten years earlier. The aliens themselves were midgets dressed in the spacesuits from Destination Moon. The red or orange sky is nice, but it’s a simple effect and not very interesting. I don’t think there’s anything here that breaks new ground. Indeed, with that final shot of the lander descending I was reminded of nothing more than the fantasies of George Méliès, like A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. That’s not progress.


*. On the commentary Robert Skotak mentions how the shots of the alien ships appearing and blasting away at the surface of the planet over and over are “quite menacing in their relentless quality.” Really? The repetition just strikes me as cheap. And they repeat these shots a lot.
*. Isn’t it odd that we begin with Colonel McReady (Adam “Batman” West) and are only later introduced to his subordinate Draper, almost incidentally? Immediately after this Draper will become the lead and McReady will disappear.
*. Paul Mantee refers to his pool scene as a nude scene but he’s clearly wearing a tan swimsuit. The only shot where he may be nude is the one distant shot where we see him climbing out, but the camera is so far away it’s hard to tell.
*. Given how fast the sand is pouring out of that clock, Draper’s alarm must be going off every five minutes.
*. It’s curious that nobody liked the awful title. How did they get stuck with it then?
*. At first Draper feels like he’s Columbus, not Crusoe. A real American. Hey, he even hangs the flag outside his cave and whistles “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”


*. What a noisy movie. And when I say “noisy” I mean filled with loud, irritating noises. Starting with that spaceship shrieking past us (over and over again), to the alien ships bombing the planet (over and over again), the alarm clock going off (over and over again), Draper playing his jerry-rigged bagpipes, and Mona the monkey squawking and chattering non-stop. At what point does a sound person clue in to this and tell the director or producers that all of this racket is really going to piss people off?
*. I can’t figure the aliens out. Though that’s not surprising. They weren’t in the original draft of the script and Haskin just added them because he still had the model spaceships from War of the Worlds hanging around. Are they trying to kill Friday at the end? Why? And why is it so hard to do? He’s wearing a tracking bracelet, but all the aliens seem able to do is randomly bomb hell out of some cliffs in the general vicinity.
*. The various voices on the DVD commentary are actually kind of sad to listen to. Mantee and Victor Lundin both thought this film was going to be their big break. Instead it bombed.
*. The film’s defenders blame poor promotion and distribution, pointing to how it was released on a double bill with a Jerry Lewis film. But I think it just isn’t very good.
*. As noted, for an SF film it feels ten years behind the time. It’s very much a product of a mid-50’s sensibility.
*. Then there’s the story, which just wanders from one challenge to another without building to any kind of conclusion. Draper makes oxygen. Finds water. Finds Friday. Hikes to the pole (for no clear reason, since he’s not getting away from the aliens). Then the aliens simply leave, without any further explanation. A voice comes over the radio and a new lander descends to save them, literally deus ex machina. That just doesn’t add up to a very interesting story. I’m not surprised people stayed away.



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