11 March 2012


The title of a work of art can be a lot of things: metaphorical, suggestive, cryptic, punning, stentorian. Or, it can be merely descriptive. But even as a merely descriptive title, 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars deserves some kind of prize. Films with titles that feel more like a pitch meeting than a legitimate name are old as Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and as new as Snakes on a Plane, but the conceptual brazenness of Robinson Crusoe on Mars is without peer, especially given that the protagonist's name isn't even Robinson Crusoe; it is absolutely nothing more than a description of the hook, telling the prospective viewer precisely what the film is all about in the most fixedly inelegant terms. It is exactly the content of Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner*, set on the planet Mars.

And for that matter, though it is not hardly the most faithful adaptation of Defoe's massively influential book, it is readily the best of the ones I have seen (a not-tremendously close second is Luis Buñuel's uncharacteristically straightforward 1954 Robinson Crusoe). Faithfulness not anyway being much of a concern here given that Defoe's novel, bless its ubiquity and historic importance, just isn't all that great a work of literature,while also being mind-numbingly racist by modern standards (though not, of course, by those of 1719). Dusting it with a bit of space-age gimcrackery is, all things considered, a fair way to knock some of the quaint and over-familiar out of the scenario, reviving the exoticism that the reader in England would have felt in the 18th Century by replacing the once-remote and now standard Caribbean setting with every 1960s pre-teen boy's favorite environment for interplanetary thrills and intrigue. In the process, it became one of the earliest "Familiar Story X, In Space!" experiments in cinema; I do not, personally, know of any prior examples other than Forbidden Planet, or "Shakespeare's The Tempest, in Space!", which was anyway uncredited.

The stand-in for Crusoe is an American astronaut named Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee), to whom we are introduced while he us orbiting the Red Planet with his co-pilot, Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West, prior to donning Batman's cowl, and not yet acting like a man who thinks William Shanter to be an embarrassingly subtle performer). It is near the end of an orbital mission exploring Mars, and the two men are in the midst of deciding whether it's necessary to consign their experimental monkey friend, Mona (Barny, the wooly monkey), to the surface of the planet and certain doom; but this conversation ends pretty damn abruptly when their vessel, the Mars Gravity Probe 1, detects the imminent threat of a meteor on a collision course; the resulting maneuvers leaves the ship without fuel, and the astronauts make the desperate decision to take escape pods down to the Martian surface, in the hope that at some point, a rescue mission comes from Earth.

Lord knows what happens to McReady in all this; Draper lands safely in the middle of a miserable desert - the film was shot mostly in Death Valley National Park - and sets to surviving in a uniquely inhospitable environment. And here we come to the big difficulty facing any Robinson Crusoe adaptation that wants to hew even remotely close to Defoe's original: it is a whole lot of nothing happening for an extremely long time. RCOM writers John C. Higgins and Ib Melchior do what they can to keep things flowing by letting Draper talk out his concerns and anxieties and plans with Mona, though to a potentially ruinous degree, they're mostly content to step back and let the film live or die based on one thing: the audience's willingness to be bowled over by the depiction of the Martian surface.

Luckily for the movie, it boasts as director Byron Haskin, one of the men best-suited at the time to making a picture that could succeed on those thin terms: a former visual effects designer who graduated to directing in earnest around the start of the 1950s. He was behind Disney's Treasure Island, and more to the point, the 1953 version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, one of the unabashed masterpieces of 1950s visual effects, and indeed one of the finest genre films of a decade lousy with sci-fi pictures (and lousy they were, for the most part). Even thus well-equipped, he's not powerless to keep RCOM from drifting over the line dividing "slow-moving and interesting" from "slow-moving and aimless" every now and then; it's certainly not as tedious as his 1958 From the Earth to the Moon, but it's not War of the Worlds, either.

Still, it is pretty spectacular stuff, boasting visual effects that were not, maybe, at the forefront of ambition or skill in 1964, but still hold up pretty damn well, and contribute to a vision of the Martian surface that is undeniably creative, whatever else is true. There is no sane reason for fireballs to zoom across the planet's surface like the castle stages in Super Mario Bros., but it would be hard to argue that said fireballs were not extremely convincing. And that's true for pretty much everything we see, from the hazy orange skies (which do not, oddly, cast any sort of orange or red light over Draper or the locations) to the obviously fake sets, which are still awfully convincing for what was never meant to be a prestige film in an era when truly outstanding effects work was still a few years in the future.

It's right on the edge between fun if you've a well-developed sense of film history and fun because it is genuinely fun; in a culture where Avatar already feels old hat, nobody could argue that RCOM is an ageless, movie, but its ideas are still weird enough (aquatic sausage plants!) and the execution solid enough that a reasonably patient viewer can get through even the dodgiest passages in the first half of the film's modestly indulgent 110 minutes.

That said, it's a blessing when Draper stumbles upon a race of unseen alien slavers (their ships played by the walker models from War of the Worlds), and rescues one of their captives, a tawny skinned humanoid who looks for all the world like he could have been born in Chicago, for that is where actor Victor Lundin was, in point of fact, born. Draper christens his new friend Friday ("with apologies to Robinson Crusoe", he says, in the most over-reaching moment of the whole picture), and teaches him enough English for the two to communicate passably well; when the aliens return, Draper and Friday escape through a chain of subterranean channels, and later over a mountain range near the polar ice cap. It's the point where the movie breaks the most from the book, partially because Friday isn't such a demeaning stereotype of the non-white servant here, and mostly because it becomes a more overt adventure than anything Defoe wrote, with some fine matinee thrills in between the process shots of Death Valley vistas and alien skies. Haskin was much better equipped to deal with this material than with the slower, more observational scenes in the first half; and Mantee's performance takes a huge step up in quality when he has another human being to play against, and not just an exceptionally well-trained monkey.

The second half is about as good as any sci-fi adventure film of that generation; but even the slower, less successful first half is well above average, and the film as a whole presents one of the most successful depictions of an extraterrestrial landscape of the pre-CGI era. Or if not "most successful", certainly one of the most imaginative; nothing about this Mars is even a little bit plausible, no more in 1964 than in the 21st Century, but that's easily the worst of its flaws, and plausibility, in a fantastic scenario of this sort, isn't such a wonderful thing, anyway. Contrivances and all (drinkable water at liquid temperature; magic oxygen rocks), this is one of filmdom's most appealing visions of Mars, and while the movie isn't entirely strong enough to justify the smallish but dogged cult it's had almost since the moment it came out, it's nothing if not a minor classic of old-school science fiction cinema.


Benjamin said...

My cinema sense is tingling. I sense an incoming John Carter review, probably middling with a slight positive lean.

Tim said...

50 fewer minutes of running time made it easier for me to see Silent House first, but the JC review is coming, I promise. No spoilers as to content.

javi75 said...

I saw this on blu-ray some time ago. Apparently people hate the animation of the space-ships. You don't even mention it. I thought it was unusual (maybe I haven't seen enough sci-fi classics). I guess they were either somewhat following accounts by UFO spotters, or they just wanted a kind of movement completely alien to human technology. I kind of liked it.
You also don't say much about the ending, which I thought was sudden, to say the least.