For years now, our world has continued to figuratively grow smaller due to advances in technology that have allowed knowledge to be discovered and shared among its inhabitants. The far reaches of the globe, from mountain peaks to ocean floors, areas heavily populated to those rarely traversed by man, can be witnessed in real time on television and through the Internet. People of different nations are now connected to each other in a global village, circumventing the leaders and media, which allows for a better understanding of one another.
Yet back in 1964 when 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars,' an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's famous 1719 novel, hit theaters, the universe was expanding. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States was in full swing and three years earlier, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had announced "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." Men from both countries had entered space and orbited the Earth. Although the Moon had not yet been reached, visiting neighboring planets Venus and Mars no longer seemed solely the stuff of storybooks. These new possibilities must have been amazing to experience. It’s the context of those times and possibilities that have to be remembered when watching 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' as the science in this science fiction tale is closer to fiction.
Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee), a member of the United States Navy and co-pilot of the Mars Gravity Probe 1, is the title character. When the ship has to take evasive action to avoid a meteor, it gets caught in the planet's gravity. He takes an escape pod to the surface below and becomes stranded. On this alien world, balls of fire move across the landscape. Through a horrible bit of ADR he details in his log that he has enough oxygen for 60 hours and water for 15 days. Since having him speak with his oxygen mask would make it difficult for audiences to understand him, he becomes acclimated to the planet's atmosphere, able to handle it for about 15 minutes or an hour when sleeping. Other than some minor dialogue by Draper, much of the time spent by himself is reminiscent of a silent film as he creates tools to survive.
Draper soon discovers he is not alone. Spaceships blast the planet's surface. Their shape is reminiscent of the Martian ships from director Byron Haskin's film 'The War of the Worlds' (1953). The repetitive way they move every time they appear is a tad distracting, although the special effects team likely had a limited budget to work with.
Draper does some exploring and discovers humanoid slaves working in mines. When one (Victor Lundin) escapes, Draper assists him and later names him Friday, in reference to their situation being similar to the one created by Defoe. There's a bit of American hubris on display as Draper demands Friday learn English and calls him retarded when he doesn’t speak it right away. Luckily, through the magic of Hollywood, Friday picks it up rather quickly. Tension begins to rise between the two as Friday's behavior becomes slightly suspicious.
While any kid taking a test about Mars in his science class would fail because of the liberties the filmmakers take, 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' is much better than the expectation its name conjures, like sci fi B-movies 'Mars Needs Women' or "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians'. The pacing is slow by today's standards, but the time spent within scenes adds realism to Draper's situation. Special effects fans, in particular, will enjoy the work on display.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' (#404 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 13-page booklet containing an essay by Michael Lennick; a glossary of words in Friday's original language from the screenplay, though since it was changed not sure why it's presented, and details about what was known about Mars in the early 1960s.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.35:1. The most impressive aspect is the great job done with the dissolve transitions, which are so much better than almost all Blu-ray catalog titles I've seen.
Reds are vibrant as is the bright yellow of the ship. The direction of the lights brings out other colors in the spacesuits. The blackness of space is inky except when the special effects plates can be seen, causing it to noticeably lighten.
There is great detail and texture seen in the Death Valley National Park landscape, which substituted for Mars. Grains of sand can be seen in their hair and on Draper's shirt. For scenes shot on sets, objects are particularly sharp and well defined. There is good depth, both on set and on location.
The video does have some issues though, but most seem to be a result of the limitations of the source. In post production, the colors of the skyline have been manipulated to appear different from the blue of Earth's, but this sometimes results in a slight brightness flicker to occur on ground. About 25 minutes in, when Draper finds a spacecraft, a hair appears at the bottom of the screen. Focus on outer edges of long shots exhibit softness, and the stock footage used looks like it was blown up from 16mm and the images aren't sharp. I didn’t notice any digital artifacts.
The audio track is English LPCM 1.0. For a mono track, the effects were very impressive. MGP-1 can be heard moving through the channel as it passes by during the opening credits as can the meteor hurtling through space. The roar of MGP-1's retro engines are impressive.
When the spaceships attack, the mix demonstrates very good dynamics. The whine of both the engines and the energy blasts have a high pitch. The results of the latter on the planet's surface deliver powerful explosions of bass. When the ground gives way under Draper and Friday a thunderous sound rings out.
The dialogue is clear, although when Draper dictates how much time his supplies leave him the ADR sounds flat and lifeless. Another instance of flatness occurs during the drinking effects for Mona.
'Robinson Crusoe on Mars' is an enjoyable update of a literary classic. The science fiction aspects are just enough to allow for a different setting without overwhelming those who don't care for the genre. It should go over well with children who are fascinated by space. The Criterion Collection does their usual impressive job giving this catalog title a high-definition upgrade.