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February 11, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #6 - Robinson Crusoe on Mars

In making a choice for my Midnight Movie of the Week, I generally have three criteria. First, the movie needs to be at least five years separated from my last MMotW pick. Secondly, it has to fit the criteria any movie would to make this site - primarily, being a flick I wouldn't mind popping in late at night for an escape into the uncommon. Third, and most importantly, I try to pick something memorable - something that jumps off the page and into the curious corners of the mind where it's sure to be a hit. That's often a hard task for a movie to live up to - but when you've got something like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the mission's pretty much accomplished in the title.

A loose adaptation of Daniel Defoe's classic novel, Robinson Crusoe, this is the tale of Commander "Kit" Draper, a lone astronaut who's marooned on the surface of the angry red planet and forced to deal with the challenge of survival. Those of us in the real world know that's not really possible, just as the people who made this film nearly 50 years ago did. But, at the height of the space craze of the mid-to-late '60s, suspension of disbelief was in style, and the film was put together with little concern for the impracticalities that would face a real astronaut faced with this scenario.

That's not to say that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a silly film - in fact, it's quite the opposite. What it lacks in scientific fact it makes up for psychologically, focusing most of its efforts on Draper (played by Paul Mantee) and his battle to deal with the fact that he is alone in this barren world. Alone, except for the ship's monkey, that is. (That's right, it's a man and his monkey film! That's really all I needed to say, isn't it?)The first half of the film is a one man show (save the early space scenes where Draper is joined by Captain Macready, played by ADAM WEST!!!!!), with Mantee working out the physical and mental challenges that his confinement on the new world bring to him. A lot of answers come in gimmicky ways, as things like oxygen, water, and food just happen to pop up at the right moments. But the biggest find comes near the midpoint of the film when Draper stumbles upon an alien slave who's escaped their race's mining efforts on Mars, and friendship ensues. Draper names the slave (played by Victor Lundin) Friday, after the character in Defoe's novel, a self-referential move that is the closest link to the source material.

From that point on, it's a two-man battle for survival, full of effects scenes and intergalactic battles. Under the direction of sci-fi mogul Byron Haskin (the original War of the Worlds), we're fed a feast of red-hued imagery and menacing alien warships that look a lot like what we've seen in Haskin's previous work. But it's the script, started by Ib Melchior and reworked by John Higgins, that gives Robinson Crusoe on Mars its best bits, including an early nightmare in which Draper encounters his undead captain (again, ADAM WEST!!!!!!!) and a bevy of entertaining exchanges between Draper and Friday in which their worlds and languages are compared.Now restored and released by the usually pretentious Criterion Collection, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is resurrected as an important bit of sci-fi, and it's a well-deserved honor. The fusion of Haskin and Melchior's ideas, plus excellent performances from the three human and one primate stars, creates a fully satisfying film that reminds me a lot of the adventures of the '30s and '40s. It's popcorn storytelling that lies somewhere between Gunga Din and Flash Gordon, and I think that any viewer that can shut down the scientific portion of their brain (because really, when you point out the scientific inconsistencies of a movie you look and sound silly) will enjoy the film's story of survival. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is one of the nearly forgotten treasures of b-movie science fiction, and I'm excited to give it a run as Midnight Movie of the Week.


Hey! Look Behind You! said...

I've never heard of this, and now it must go on my long list of "things I must check out"

The Mike said...

Was it the monkey that sold ya?

R.D. Penning said...

Sadly enough, I have never seen it