Robinson Crusoe On Mars
R1 - America - Criterion Collection
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (19th November 2007).
The Film

Like some avid movie fans my history with Home Video stems back to the Laserdisc days, before DVD these were the top shelf releases for serious movie buffs, presented in widescreen and with supplements and occasionally deluxe collector's sets. These releases were often very expensive and made for a small niche market. The Criterion Collection released laserdiscs between 1984 and 1998 spanning 384 releases of classic and contemporary films and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" was one of their releases, spine number 184 the edition would boast some highly desirable supplements and a beautiful widescreen transfer and long after it when out of print the disc remained one of the most sought after titles in the Criterion cannon. The fact the film eluded DVD release for many years would see the price for this title rise, and would sell for $300-$500 USD on auction sites such as eBay The collectible value of the release continued to increase as each year went by, until recently when Criterion finally secured the rights again and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" would be available for the first time on DVD and fans would not longer have to pay the exorbitant prices for the laserdisc.
Special Effects artists Byron Haskin made a career out of creating unique effects for films in the 1940's and parlayed his abilities into the director's chair making for the most part b-movies and working in Television. Out of the various feature films and TV projects he's worked on, "The War of the Worlds" (1953), "Conquest of Space" (1955) and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" remain the most remembered, the latter attracting a cult status among sci-fi fans. When originally released in 1964 the film would prove lackluster at the box office, the marketing would herald the film as 'scientifically accurate', a moniker which is quite laughable today (although some elements are rather accurate).
In 1964 man hadn't landed on the moon yet but the space race and all things related would be the obsession of many children, the comic book publisher, toy companies and movie studios latched on to the new phenomenon and started churning out one space adventure after the next, Marvel had launched "The Fantastic Four", a super-group that got their powers from an accident that took place in space, new G.I.. Joe's were available in space suits and many films would become largely forgotten as they made their rounds to drive-ins as double-bills. "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" was certainly a product of its time, reflecting the human condition for adventure, discovery and stretching the imagination farther than Earth's moon. Screenwriters Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins would take Daniel Defoe's novel "Robinson Crusoe" and adapt it for the sci-fi themed film. On the outset the story of a castaway is easily transferred to the setting of space, the vast and empty unknown. It makes perfect sense to make it into a sci-fi film and the screenwriters have happened onto a perfect match. However, in reality I doubt it's the case of clever writers and more a case of opportunistic ones, considering "Robinson Crusoe" was already in the public domain and therefore a free property the filmmaker's could adapt for their own means. Regardless it's still a fine idea and one that translates well into this b-movie sci-fi package for Paramount Pictures. Haskin had already proven his salt with the studio with "The War of the Worlds" film version so this film project wasn't so much a risk in the hands of an already experienced special effects man.
By today's standards the film's look is very retro, it's very much the future (or near future) of the 1960's, the space craft's control panel made up of blinking lights and dials, cannibalized reel-to-reel recorders and such technology make up the production design. While the equipment retains a kitsch the Martian landscape in which hour hero lands is quite remarkable considering there was no imagery of Mars when the film was produced. The limited special effects to create the landscape, the red skies and the volcanic eruptions of fire aside the sparse and harsh rocky terrain is similar to what we've seen transmitted back from the Mars Rovers. Filmed in Death Valley the filmmaker's were able to capture a somewhat accurate depiction of the planet. Other elements are highly debatable however such as the aforementioned volcanic fire balls that erupt (this of course means there is breathable oxygen on the planet) and the Human-like miner slaves are another (in a rather interesting in-joke they are dressed like Ancient Egyptians, perpetuating the belief that the Pyramids were built by Aliens or at least they were helped by them...) there's a lot of moments like these throughout the film but the flaws can be forgiven for being a interesting take on Defoe's story and for being a rather unconventional sci-fi film. It's not a wham-bang adventure story with a laser wielding intergalactic hero, but instead an explorer trying to survive in a harsh and unknown environment which, in many ways makes this film all the more interesting. It also stars a pre-fame Adam West, who still manages to deliver a performance that makes wood seem more emotive.
"Robinson Crusoe on Mars" may not be best and most memorable sci-fi film produced but for all its retro futuristic style, campy special effects and flaws it's still a fun adventure film and doesn't seem to fall in many of the traps other b-movies of kind fall into and that's being boring. There always seems something that captures viewers each time. And for that reason it deserves a place on your shelf.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical widescreen ratio of 2.35:1 this anamorphic transfer is a new restored image, and a significant improvement over the previous Laserdisc release not only because it's an anamorphic image but the picture is much sharper and colors appear much more vibrant. The image is incredibly clean with little by way of specks or dirt, some effects shots appear grainer than most other shots but this is common in optical effects which are layered and can seem a bit softer. Black levels are striking and deep, and shadow detail holds up through the transfer. For a sci-fi b-movie this film has been given a fine treatment and presents the film better than it's likely ever been seen.

Audio

A single English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is included, which appears to be the film's original soundtrack and for this release has also been given a clean up eliminating flaws such as drops out, hiss, pops and crackle that occasionally plague older soundtracks. These problems are nowhere to be found on this track and the film's dialogue (although sparse at times) is clear and distortion free, the soundtrack comes alive with all the cool and campy futuristic sound design of the equipment and Mars environment of course this is all focused on the center channel, I couldn't help but think what this would have sounded like with a new 5.1 soundtrack though.
Optional subtitles are also included in English for the hearing impaired.

Extras

The Criterion Collection has included an audio commentary, a featurette, a music video, the film's theatrical trailer, plus a still gallery, DVD-ROM content and a booklet with liner notes. Below is a closer look at these supplements.

Audio commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchior, production designer Al Nozaki, film historian Robert Skotak, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, and also featuring excerpts of a 1979 interview with director Byron Haskin. This track is ported from the Laserdisc release and was originally recorded in 1994. The track is edited together to feature the various participants as well as the archival interview of the director and makes for a rather fast moving track that covers a lot of bases. Especially concerning the film defying a lot of already established sci-fi conventions, the vision of the film's tone and style including the production design of the ship's interior and equipment but also the Mars locations and Kit's cave dwelling. The special effects are also touched on and how they were achieved back in the 60's and the vintage interview with the director reveals a lot more about the production and filming process. Overall this is an enjoyable track that many fans will get a kick out of.

Next up is "Destination: Mars" a featurette that runs for 19 minutes 31 seconds and takes a look at Mars, the impact the planet has had on popular culture and especially in sci-fi films with specific regard to this one. It also looks at the historical perspective, landing crafts and the science behind the films among other things.

Following that is "Robinson Crusoe On Mars" a music video by actor Victor Lundin and runs for 4 minutes 35 seconds, Lundin used to sing this song at sci-fi conventions and Criterion produced this video clip made from scenes from the film. It's quite a terrible song with a corny pop-western beat to it.

Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer that runs for 4 minutes 1 second.

As well as "Under the Surface" a comprehensive still gallery consisting of 212 pages of images and text information including production photographs, promotional materials such as posters, lobby cards and press book as well as production materials such as original sketches. This is a fantastic resource for fans.

The disc also includes DVD-ROM content, which I've never really seen before on a criterion release and includes some downloadable "Script Excerpts" in PDF format.

Rounding out the extras is a 12-page booklet featuring:

- "Life on Mars" an essay by Michael Lennick.
- Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Yargorian...But Where Afraid to Ask" dictionary
- "Facts About Mars" notes

Overall

The Film: B- Video: A Audio: B+ Extras: B+ Overall: B+

 


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