Made in a time where Cecil B. Demille was considered an auteur, ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ represents the end of an age of filmmaking where premise attracted more than gimmick; where the process of demarcation between glamorous studio artifice and pragmatic real-life designs was but a puerile concern; where merit of performance was measured according to camp theatricality and trenchant delivery of verbose Shakespearean soliloquies; and when imperialistic, gung-ho American values of a type that would give an ultra-conservative Republican a wet-dream were almost belligerently embraced by Hollywood directors, producers, and screenwriters alike. More accurately, ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ represents the emergence of a more progressive and cynical attitude towards the conventional aesops and visual techniques of classical cinema. That is, it likes to think it is.
Featuring only four speaking roles (the screen time of both amalgamable to barely a length of fifteen minutes); a solid degree of “scientific authenticity” – of which the film particularly prided itself with possessing upon release –; small sections of film that are nearly void of dialog (though nowhere near to the degree of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’); and Byron Haskin, director of the rather nihilistic and cynical ‘The War of the Worlds’, at the helm; ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ had many of the hallmarks of an audacious film. These hallmarks were but superficial though, as the film, despite its best efforts, was still incredibly burdened by the innumerable clichés and trappings of its genre and the social and political constraints of the conservative – even secretly McCarthyite – nation that it was made in.
As to which of those two constraints overall hurt the film more, I cannot say. Certainly, improvements to the film’s script and mise-en- scene would have been welcome, and had the film been made but a few years later it would have likely have been able to take advantage of such technological advances in FX as retroreflective matting and slit- scan photography. However, denial of the film’s strong thematic weaknesses would only be made by the film’s most ardent apologists, as the film’s inability to effectively explore such issues as white supremacy and black oppression through the character of Friday, a character with a complexion even lighter than Defoe’s equivalent, is severely detrimental to the thematic credibility of the film.
The film does regain some of its thematic integrity, though, with a few clever, and not-so-clever, symbolic allusions to the Cold War. Some include: the barren, red landscape of Mars (possibly representing the squalid and ominous nature of communism); the constant barrage of asthmatic fireballs against Draper and Friday from both natural and extraterrestrial sources (possibly an allegory nuclear war, though the fact that the fireballs always miss the two parties could emphasize a perceived ineptitude within the Soviet militant force, or the USSR as a whole); Draper’s orbiting spacecraft, which he begrudgingly refers to as “an orbiting supermarket” (representing the space race); and the final meteor collision at the film’s climax (suspiciously resembling the fall- out of an atomic blast).
The film at times toys with delving into metafictional ground when Draper names his newfound alien companion as ‘Friday’ (also the name the protagonist christens the rescued slave with in Daniel Defoe’s novel ‘Robinson Crusoe’). If the appellation of the extraterrestrial and the title of the film were not enough to emphasize the connection between it and Defoe’s work, then a wry statement by Draper upon naming the runaway – “with regards to Robinson Crusoe” – will surely ‘hammer the point home’.
These virtues, however, are only very slight and simply cannot redeem what is ultimately run-of-the-mill sci-fi fare.