Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

During our great space race of the ‘60s, the sci fi genre took on added credibility and attention as fiction moved closer to reality. That’s not to say that the genre suddenly grounded itself in hard facts, but some efforts were made to feed the public appetite for outer space with actual scientific research. One of those projects has just been released in a lush new Criterion Blu-ray edition packaged with a supplemental feature espousing its basis in fact. Don’t worry though, that pesky science barely gets in the way of the film’s undeniable campiness. It may have correctly guessed a few space age outcomes, but it’s still a wild and free-wheeling outing on the mysterious red planet.

There’s no question about the plot of the movie, as its title is completely descriptive. This is the Robinson Crusoe story retold in space, following the same arc as Daniel Defoe’s original novel or any other subsequent deserted island films such as Swiss Family Robinson, The Blue Lagoon, or Cast Away, with our hero stranded far from home with no hope of rescue as he deals with survival issues and the crushing effects of isolation. There’s even a man Friday along for the ride, an alien slave rescued from his Mars captors by our intrepid astronaut. And there’s a monkey, because everything is better with a monkey. Well, that’s actually part of the science at work again, since the monkey is a fellow astronaut, expanding on their early use by NASA.

The film opens with our Crusoe, the monkey, and a third astronaut (yes, that is “Batman” Adam West) moving into orbit around Mars. When they’re forced to take evasive actions to avoid a huge mass hurtling through space, they separate into two landing modules and crash on the planet’s surface, with only Crusoe and the monkey surviving the landing. Crusoe explores the red planet as he learns to adapt to its lack of oxygen and eventually discovers shelter, food, and water. His chance encounter with Friday grants him the human companionship he misses the most, and the two bond over their efforts to survive and learn each other’s language while outwitting the alien captors continually scouting the planet for their lost property. It’s a pretty basic premise, but it gets a bit wonky in its execution.

Although they shot some exteriors in Death Valley to get a suitably desolate alien landscape, the film’s special effects have not aged well. I found myself frequently comparing its effects to the original Star Trek TV series of the same era, and finding Star Trek to be superior. That comparison may be partially attributed to the fact that Crusoe’s director also later co-produced the original Star Trek pilot, helping to set the tone for both projects. Director Byron Haskin was an effects pioneer, and scared generations of film lovers with his direction of The War of the Worlds, but appeared to be nearing the end of his trail based on the work here. There were a couple of so-so attempts at composite shots with the live action footage appended to matte paintings of Mars backgrounds, and even combined with real volcano footage at one point, but the precision of Blu-ray makes the seams painfully obvious. The alien slaveowner spaceships are particularly laughable, with a high quotient of heavily recycled footage and simple popping in and out of frame like bubbles rather than any attempt at movement. Crusoe starts recording a journal on tape, but keeps shutting off his oxygen tank before each recording line…even though he doesn’t ever appear to be turning it back on afterwards. Even Friday’s silly caveman wig detracts from the serious intentions of the film. The cheese factor of the film rockets sky high thanks to its effects. In our post-space race era, that’s really all the film has to offer new viewers, although its fervent early fans will undoubtedly enjoy reminiscing with its wide-eyed vision of the future.

The film has been completely restored by Criterion, with loving attention paid to its vast 2.35:1 Techniscope color presentation. The version presented here was struck from the original negative and digitally cleaned to remove flaws. The uncompressed monaural audio track was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic master and also digitally cleaned. As par for the course with Criterion, the finished product is seemingly better than its original theatrical release. It’s all topped off with a groovy Bill Sienkiewicz cover illustration that beautifully nails the film’s theme and setting.

In addition to the previously mentioned science-heavy featurette, the disc includes audio commentary from the film’s screenwriter, stars, and others, an enlightening stills gallery including many unused concepts for the film, along with its original theatrical trailer and an amusing music video for a theme song actor Victor Lundin (Friday) wrote and recorded many years later in response to fan requests.

Originally posted at FilmRadar.

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