what i watched last week
boardwalk empire, season four finale

blu-ray series #4: robinson crusoe on mars (byron haskin, 1964)

(The “Blu-ray Series” is by request from my wife, who said I had to watch all of the Blu-rays on the shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to, before I bought any more.)

In 1953, Byron Haskin directed The War of the Worlds, an acknowledged classic of 1950s sci-fi. A decade later, Haskin brought some of the same crew, along with a smaller budget, to Death Valley for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I grant you that the idea of putting Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe on Mars seems like a bit of a stretch, yet the film works surprisingly well.

The best way to describe Robinson Crusoe on Mars is to note the things it is not. For starters, it’s not just a cheap bit of drive-in junk (of course, I often enjoy watching such junk). Haskin and his crew are professionals taking on a serious project. Perhaps it seems like damning with faint praise, but any random Saturday night watching the SyFy Channel will suffice to remind us that movies like this are often shoddy in their execution. At times, watching Robinson Crusoe on Mars, you’re taken with a bit of outdated science, and occasionally the social attitudes of 1964 make themselves known. But never do you think the movie is made by incompetents.

Speaking for myself, when I see the word “Mars” in a title, especially from the 1950s or 60s, I expect space battles with laughable special effects and “Martians” who look like Little Green Men. There are no space battles in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and even the spaceships that do appear do their business and get out of the way. Thus, once again, the movie is good partly for what it is not. It doesn’t match the stereotype that I, at least, attach to such projects.

There are plenty of opportunities for lame comedy. There’s a monkey that ends up on Mars with “Crusoe”, and again, expectations are that the monkey will offer up a series of goofy antics for the kids in the audience, something like what Cheetah provided in Tarzan movies. Except this monkey isn’t there for comic relief. For much of the film, she is the only companion of “Crusoe”, and she makes an important contribution by finding water. While the movie is slow at times, and you might find yourself wishing for a little comic relief, the way the monkey is used is another example of what separates Robinson Crusoe on Mars from similar films.

It’s also an unpretentious movie. A few years later, we’d get 2001, full of cosmic spiritualism and unanswered questions about the universe. Robinson Crusoe on Mars mostly avoids this, for the better, in my opinion. Oh, there are occasional references to “God”, but they aren’t overdone.

In fact, what turns out to be surprising is that the title really does describe the movie. Defoe’s character is transported to Mars, with just enough similarities in the two stories to justify the “suggested by” credits. It’s not a movie about a lonely astronaut battling space aliens, but instead the story of a man trying to survive in a world unlike his own. His attitudes reflect his times just as Crusoe’s reflected his. When Friday turns up, “Crusoe” tries to establish a master/servant relationship (Friday is an escaped slave), but the ways in which the two men help each other is more about bromance than about power.

All of this adds up to a movie that is better than you’d expect, one that doesn’t insult your intelligence. It must be admitted, though, that despite my praise for all the things it isn’t, what it is can drag at times, and there is a general lack of excitement. It seems better after the fact than it does while you’re watching. Still, that’s a lot better than the movie turning out even worse than you’d feared. 7/10.

The obvious companion would be The War of the Worlds, a better movie all around. If you want a real crap-fest sci-fi movie from 1964, you might watch a few minutes of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s not exactly science-fiction, but for a satiric look at American attitudes in 1964, there’s always Stanley Kubrick’s last great movie, Dr. Strangelove. What the heck … Adam West is in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, you could just watch a couple of old Batman episodes.

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