Starring: Paul Mantee, Adam West
Director: Byron Haskin
This updating of Defoe’s novel for the space race-obsessed 1960s strives for an air of similitude, but it’s most likely to be watched now for its above average FX and the lava-lamp colours of its glorious Techniscope cinematography. A two man (plus monkey) team are taking a mosey round the Solar System when they’re forced to ditch their craft and make an emergency landing on Mars. Separated from his co-pilot, Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) has to find a way of surviving on the inhospitable(ish) surface of the red planet.
The first and best part of the film creates drama by posing a series of problems for Kit to solve – namely, finding food, shelter, water and some way of replenishing his oxygen tanks (there’s a constant danger that he’ll suffocate in his sleep if he doesn’t wake up in time to change them). No little green aliens – this is hard SF of the sliderule kind favoured by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell. At least for a while … later on director Byron Haskin and producer/scriptwriter Ib Melchior seem to lose their nerve and tilt the story in a more Burroughsian direction (which also, to be fair, shadows Defoe’s storyline). But it’s the earlier science project moments that are the more memorable.
Looks-wise, the film is full of period charm. The scale model work in the early sequences is surprisingly good, with Kit’s space probe zipping convincingly across the screen at a fair lick of speed. The cockpit is another visual treat, packed with lovely, chunky buttons and dials. Meanwhile, the fiery surface of Mars is evoked with a blend of mattework and sweeping panoramas shot in Death Valley, California, all captured in epic widescreen. Kitsch without being camp, soberly scripted but slightly trippy to watch, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a worthy addition to any collection of ’60s sci-fi. 7/10
Aside from a few moments when the vintage process work causes graininess, the picture is extremely sharp and detailed. The rocky surface of Mars (i.e., Death Valley), the polished sheen of Kit’s space suit helmet, the lurid glow-stick colours all come with sparkling freshness. 8/10
Audio commentary by FX artist Robert Skotaki, who talks about his own career as well as that of Ib Melchior, with whom he became friends in the 1970s. 6/10