Synopsis: Special-effects wunderkind and genre master Byron Haskin (The War Of The Worlds, The Outer Limits) won a place in the hearts of fantasy-film lovers everywhere with this gorgeously designed journey into the unknown. When his spaceship crash-lands on the barren wastelands of Mars, U.S. astronaut Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) must fight for survival, with a pet monkey seemingly his only companion. But is he alone? Shot in vast Techniscope and blazing Technicolor, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is an imaginative and beloved techni-marvel of classic science fiction.
eyelights: the ingenious special effects. the motion picture score.
eyesores: the repetitious special effects. Friday.
Well, they can’t all be winners…
When I first heard of ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’, by reading about it on one of my favourite blu-ray news and reviews sites, my immediate impression was that it sounded lame. Really lame. The title alone suggests a certain dearth of creativity, as though the studio pitch (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe, but on Mars”) was unfortunately the extent of the writer’s ability to distil the picture’s essence in a few choice words.
One might be quick to point out that many motion pictures have titles that poorly describe their content (ex: ‘Quantum of Solace‘, ‘Space Cowboys’), are unmarketable (ex: ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’), or are too simplistic or unoriginal (ex: ‘Alien‘ – although, since the word “alien” reflects many aspects of the picture, it is quite appropriate).
But ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds especially hokey. While we’re at it, one might as well propose ‘Treasure Island in Space’ (check!), ‘Shakespeare with Guns’ (check!), ‘New Testament: The Musical’ (check!), ‘The Wizard of OZ in Harlem‘ (check!), ‘Charles Dickens meets Jim Henson’ (check!), ‘The Road Warrior on Water’ (check!), or ‘Dangerous Liaisons for Teens’ (check!) – ’cause it can’t get any more ridiculous-sounding.
Snicker, snicker… I would sure love to see more movies that are named after their sales pitch – that would be a blast (or, at least, it would be worth a few chuckles…).
Anyway, the only reason I actually considered this film is because it was released on the prestigious cinema lover’s label, The Criterion Collection. I don’t like all of their releases, admittedly (it’s quite possible that I don’t have a fine enough palate… yet), but any movie released by Criterion is typically of exceptional quality – and frequently comes highly recommended in many circles.
I figured that a science fiction film from them could only be a good thing (‘Armageddon’ excepted, of course – I still don’t get that one!). So, despite my aversion to the title itself, when I got the chance to pick up ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’, I snatched it up right quick and ramped it up on my priority list. I was now slightly curious to find out what made this one worthy of Criterion.
After a false start (my partner was bored to tears after 10 minutes, so I temporarily shelved it), I finally got around to seeing this purported classic.
Let me tell you, it’s a clunker of a picture: not only is it slow to move (watching paint dry might prove more exciting at times), and is only vaguely interesting, but the lead is as dry and bland as space toast (case-in-point: Adam West has a bit part in the picture, and he’s by far the best actor there!), and the visual effects are oft-times risible to say the least (the spacecrafts, in particular, were as bad as it gets!).
I’m sure glad that I was alone to watch this; I would have felt terrible to have dragged anyone else into this!
Still, I kind of enjoyed the slow, uneventfulness of it all until our Robinson Crusoe suddenly met up with his “Friday”. Which… he decided to name Friday as well, nodding knowingly to the original tale. Until then, our man, Kit, was only accompanied by his pet monkey (and thank goodness for its inclusion, because there was no other sign of life on Mars – or in the picture)!
Anyway, the moment that (ugh…) Friday pops up, we are forced to contend with the tedium of communication between an Anglophone and a non-English speaking person. Sigh. This is boring enough as it is, if only by virtue of having been done to death in Westerns, but our Friday also pretty much looks like a cross between 1940s Hollywood’s version of an American Indian crossed with an Egyptian slave from ‘The Ten Commandments’.
Then there is the matter of the two characters’ newly-developed “brotherhood” or partnership – which really amounts to a white man with his aboriginal side-kick.
In a science fiction movie.
Now, I understand that the film was probably cobbled together with chicken wire, thereby explaining the repeated use of the same effect shots (in particular, the attack formations of the aforementioned spacecrafts, which were reused to the point of audience abuse), but there’s absolutely no reason to use a stand-in from ‘Geromino’ in lieu of an actual alien. At the very least, they should have painted him an otherworldly colour.
Alas, this was not to be.
Frankly, the only particularly yummy part of the whole film was the terrific score by Van Cleave. I have no idea who this guy is, but, until the end credits came on, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that the producers had nabbed a young (i.e. affordable) John Barry for the project: some of the passages were reminiscent of Barry’s own sumptuous score for ‘Moonraker’ (or was that ‘You Only Live Twice’? Or ‘Thunderball’. Not sure…). Anyway, I will have to explore this composer at some point.
So, all this to say that, even though the original Robinson Crusoe is a literary classic, rarely does watching a one-person piece work on the silver screen. Tom Hanks pulled it off in ‘Castaway’ – but this was a rare case of excellent casting supported by creative direction. ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ offers neither, and doesn’t even have the special effects mojo to make up for it in sheer eye candy. In the end, it’s an intriguing idea, but it’s one that remained stranded at the conceptual stage.
Date of viewing: November 25, 2012