During an orbital exploratory mission to Mars, Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) and Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) are forced to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a large meteor. They inadvertently put themselves in a position for Mars’ gravitational pull to take over, and they’re running out of fuel. Thus first Draper, then McReady eject. Draper finds himself alone, Robinson Crusoe style, and must figure out how to survive.
Director Byron Haskin and company spared no expense to make sure that all of the scientific elements of this film were accurate enough to function as a graduate level “motion picture textbook” for planetary sciences courses, and the special effects are so realistic that even Peter Jackson felt that his Lord of the Rings trilogy fell short of the technical wizardry on display here. Of course I’m joking. The truth is that while Robinson Crusoe on Mars is extremely cheesy in many respects, this is a very fun film, with a gripping, often-suspenseful story and a great sense of adventure. It rises above its flaws to merit an 8 out of 10 from me.
Actually, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a great example of why science fiction is usually considered to belong to the genre umbrella of “fantasy” (and yes, that’s even true of literary “hard science fiction”). Even though they often involve plot points based on technical aspects of the sciences–and believe it or not, this film is primarily focused on that–in their broader structures, the stories are usually fantasy tales, and reality is dispensed with as soon as either (1) it doesn’t suit what the author considers to be a good story, (2) the author’s scientific knowledge/research reaches its limit, or (3) the author engages in speculation (which is fundamental to the genre).
Despite scriptwriters John C. Higgins and Ib Melchior frequently engaging in (1) (and very likely (2) plus an added departure point for films–budgetary limitations), the suspense in the first half of the film is propelled by Draper’s need for oxygen, water and food. These are basic concerns that many other “shipwrecked on a planet” films often bypass through some kind of deus ex machine. In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, they never stop being central to the plot. Admittedly, if every film merely dwelled on those issues, we’d quickly grow tired of it, but it works extremely well here.
Even more remarkable, for the majority of the film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a one-man show. Mantee must hold the audience’s interest on his own for a good 70 or 80 minutes. He does so easily. He brings just the right mixture of tough-guy ingenuity and vulnerability to the part.
Of course, part of the enjoyment of watching the film at this point in time is that much of it is unintentionally funny. There are some strange editorial corrections, such as the overdubbed “15 Days” when Draper is making an accounting of his supplies. We are treated to ridiculously bad spaceship animation. There are odd floating fireballs when Draper first touches down. There isn’t much effort in many shots to keep the settings looking like Mars. There is one scene with Ed Wood-style changes back and forth from night to day. And so on.
On the other hand, if we look at the film as residing more in a realm of surrealism, elements such as the floating fireballs are actually pretty cool, and much of the cinematography and settings are excellent. The exteriors were primarily shot in Death Valley National Park, and it is beautifully captivating here. Also, some of the attempts to make the exteriors look more Mars like are actually gorgeous. We get purple and blue rockscapes against smoky skies, and we often see nice nods to classic sci-fi illustrators such as Frank R. Paul (whose work often graced the covers of fiction magazines like Amazing Stories) in features such as bright red skies. Haskin also has a few moments of effective ingenuity, such as a crucial plot point appearing as video that Draper took and watched later. Plus, some of the film is intentionally funny–my favorite instance being the line, “Mr. Echo, go to hell!”
The biggest flaw in my eyes is that the ending seems a bit rushed. A lot happens in the last ten minutes or so of the film, without the suspense it could have had with a longer running time. Despite the flaws, however, this is worth a watch by serious fans of classic sci-fi, and it’s interesting to note influences films like this have had on later-generation works in the same vein, such as Red Planet (2000).