Robinson Crusoe on Mars
October 5, 2007
Artists have always been fascinated by the planet Mars, from books like H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to films like Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Angry Red Planet (1960). Screenwriter Ib Melchior was already a veteran of the science fiction genre with credits for television shows like Men into Space and The Outer Limits. He originally intended to direct his script for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) but conflicting projects forced him drop out and Byron Haskin, also familiar with the genre thanks to efforts like The War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955), to take his place.
When his spacecraft is drawn dangerously into Mars’ gravity while trying to avoid a meteor, Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (Mantee) ejects via an escape pod, crash landing on the planet. He is forced to abandon the pod when a mysterious cloud of flame incinerates it. Low on rations and oxygen, Kit must find a way to survive on this hostile planet. He has to be resourceful if he’s to stay alive. Fortunately, he’s able to find adequate shelter and warmth within hours of crash landing. Kit finds the other escape pod but only Mona the monkey, which was a part of the expedition, has survived.
By accident, and with Mona’s help, Kit discovers water and a replenishible source of oxygen. Now, he only has to find a way to keep himself occupied so that he doesn’t go crazy from isolation. However, he’s not alone as he discovers an alien race buzzing around the skies in spacecraft that more than a little resembles the ones in Haskin’s take on The War of the Worlds. They too are far from friendly, bombarding the surface with deadly lasers.
For large portions of the film it’s a one-man show as Paul Mantee has no one to act against except for a monkey but he’s more than up for the challenge, convincingly conveying the overwhelming feelings of loneliness and what that does to his character’s well-being.
The film tells a simple story of survival in a hostile environment and in doing so takes us under its famous canals and its seemingly bottomless caverns. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of conveying a sense of place by immersing us in the planet’s geography. The harsh-looking, yellowish mountains Kit travels over are an impressive sight even by 1964 special effects standards as his lone figure is dwarfed by the environment. Considering what little was known about Mars in 1964, it is impressive what the filmmakers get right and how much they rely on artistic license. Robinson Crusoe on Mars must have seemed pretty futuristic back then but has a curious, retro appeal now.
There is an audio commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, and special effects designer Robert Skotak. Nozaki kicks things off by talking about the design of the spacecraft and how it moved – all done under a tight deadline. He also talks about how they pulled off some of the SFX shots. Mantee talks about how he got involved and suspects that he was cast because of his more than passing resemblance to NASA astronaut Alan Shepard. This is a very informative track as one would expect from a Criterion Collection release.
“Destination: Mars” features historian Michael Lennick taking a look at Mars and how it has been portrayed in our popular culture. At the time the film was made, man had not even been on the Moon and so the filmmakers had to speculate what the planet would be like. This featurette also explores how the film’s depiction of Mars holds up to what we know.
Also included is a music video created by Criterion to go with Victor Lundin’s song, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” This is basically a montage of clips from the film with Lundin’s country ditty.
There is a theatrical trailer.
Finally, “Under the Surface” is an impressive collection of illustrations from the screenplay of creatures and tools that did not make it into the film, pre-production sketches, costume designs, storyboards, behind-the-scenes photographs, and poster designs.