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Robinson Crusoe on Mars – The Criterion Collection #404 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

January 2, 2011 by  



A classic sci-fi favorite for many fans of the genre, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is an enjoyable sci-fi film about one man’s battle for survival in a martian planet.  From director Byron Haskin (“The War of the Worlds”, “The Outer Limits”), “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”  is an enjoyable sci-fi film that looks fantastic on Blu-ray!

Image courtesy of © 2010 Paramount Pictures/2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Robinson Crusoe on Mars – The Criterion Collection #404

YEAR OF FILM: 1964

DURATION: 110 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, Monaural

COMPANY: Paramount/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: January 11, 2011

Based on the novel “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe

Directed by Byron Haskin

Written by John C. Higgins, Ib Melchior

Produced by Aubrey Schenck

Executive Producer: Edwin F. Zabel

Music by Van Cleave

Cinematography by Winton C. Hoch

Edited by Terry O. Morse

Art Direction by Arthur Lonergan, Albert Nozaki, Hal Pereira

Starring:

Paul Mantee as Cmdr. Christopher “Kit” Draper

Victor Lunding as Friday

Adam West as Col. Dan McReady

The Wooley Monkey as Mona

Special effects wunderkind and genre master Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, The Outer Limits) won a place in the hearts of fantasy film lovers everywhere with this gorgeously designed journey into the unknown. Robinson Crusoe on Mars tells the story of U.S. astronaut Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee), who must fight for survival when his spaceship crash-lands on the barren waste of Mars, a pet monkey his only companion. But is he actually alone? Shot in vast Techniscope and blazing color, this is an imaginative and beloved marvel of classic science fiction.

“Robinson Crusoe”, a novel written by Daniel Defoe back in 1719 would become an inspiration for a 1964 Techniscope sci-fi film titled “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” directed by Byron Haskin (“The War of the Worlds”, “The Outer Limits”,  “Captain Sinbad”) and written by Ib Melchior (“Death Race 2000”, “Death Race”, “The Outer Limits”, “The Time Travelers”) and John Higgins (“Border Incident”, “He Walked By Night”, “The Public Pays”).

While the original film focused on a castaway trying to survive 28-years in a remote tropical island trying to survive from Native Americans and captives, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is a story about two astronauts: Colonel Dan McReady (played by Adam West) and Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (played by Paul Mantee) and Mcready’s monkey named Mona who are the crew of Mars Gravity Probe 1.

When a meteor is incoming, the crew uses up their fuel to avoid a collision from the meteor and end up stuck in orbit.  So, to survive, the crew have no choice but to eject to the surface and will become the first men on the planet.

For Commander Draper, he nearly suffers a tragic landing but manages to survive with a two oxygen tanks and a few equipment but unfortunately his radio is not working in the martian environment.

As he observes the martian landscape, there is nothing but rocks and a volatile environment.  The first thing Draper needs to do is find shelter and manages to find a cave.  Draper believes he has about 60 hours tops before he runs out of oxygen, so he needs to go find Colonel McReady and hopefully the two can get some help.  When he goes to check out the surface, he notices rocks catching on fire and amused by it, he brings a few back with him.

As he conducts tests on the rocks, he learns that they are combustible with oxygen and enough to keep warm during the cold nights.

As he goes to find Colonel McReady, unfortunately he finds a perished spacecraft and the body of McReady but surviving the accident was Dan’s monkey, Mona in which he manages to use some of Mona’s oxygen tanks to keep them both alive.  With not much oxygen left, Commander Draper knows he is going to die and he makes it to the cave along with Mona and collapses near the rocks.

Next thing you know, the rocks seem to be blowing oxygen and keeps Draper alive.  It appears that the coal-like rocks not only are great for heating, they also provide oxygen and now he knows that he and Mona can survive on the planet.  But now, the problem is water and food.  As Draper tries to conserve their space tubes of food and what little water they have, Draper notices that Mona is gone for hours at a time?  Where is she going?

When he goes to find her, he falls through a shaft and in that shaft he finds Mona drinking water and eating food.  It appears that Mona has found a water source underground and also a food source which include edible plant-like sausages.

As Draper and Mona tries to survive in Mars, he tries to communicate with his aircraft above but with no success.  Feeling helpless and isolated, he slowly begins to crack.  Although Draper has had months of isolation training, he knows that after that training, he would be back to reality.  But this time around, he knows that he may be stuck in Mars, the only human there.

One day, while walking around Mars with Mona, he notices a rock in an upright position and discovers a skeleton hand with a bracelet on it.  As he digs up the corpse, by analyzing the body, he realizes that the human has been murdered and his skull was charred.  He realizes that the presence of the Mars Gravity Probe 1 spacecraft could show signs of his presence, so he uses a destruct code to blow it up.

He notices that after he does that, unidentified flying objects show up and start attacking the Mars landscape.  He grabs his video camera and starts focusing it on the UFO’s and sees a man trying to escape from the area.  Commander Draper realizes that he is not the only human on Mars and helps the man back to the cave.  He names the man “Friday” (played by Victor Lundin) as as he watches video footage, he sees alien beings uses these humans as slaves and the reason why they were shooting was to capture the escaped slave, Friday.

The two manage to have a friendship and try their best to communicate with each other.

But Draper learns that the bracelets (that were found on the dead skeletal remains and on Friday) are communication alert tags put on the slaves by their alien captors to find them and Commander Draper knows he must do all he can to remove those bracelets from Friday and save them from the enemy UFO’s before they end up being killed.

VIDEO:

“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is presented in its original Technicscope aspect ratio of 2:35:1.  According to the Criterion Collection, the high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm 2-perforation A/B interpositive struck from the original negative.

Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

Compared to the original Criterion Collection LaserDisc and the 2007 DVD release, the Blu-ray release of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” looks great on Blu-ray as we can see the detail of the rocks with clarity.  The film was originally shot at Death Valley National Park in California as well as Zabriskie Point, Ubehebe Crater and Devil’s Golf Course.

The colors showcase the red atmosphere of Mars but also shows detail on the grime and skin pores of Commander Draper and the fur of Mona.  The film doesn’t utilize any uber-expensive production sets but utilizes area of Death Valley, with the desert, the rock formations and a lot of dirt.

Where we see most of the color of the film is when Draper is inside the cave and we see pink and green illuminating rocks or outdoors when it shows fire coming from the rocks.  But we see a lot of the detail coming from the three main characters and the rocks themselves. Good use of color filters in the composite shots.  Colors are vibrant,  blacks were nice and deep and a good amount of grain featured throughout the film.

If there was a downside, it would be the dated special effects, especially when featuring the UFO’s but If anything, the picture quality for “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” on Blu-ray is pretty solid and definitely a major upgrade from the original 2007 DVD release.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is presented in lossless monaural.  The soundtrack was absolutely crystal clear.  Dialogue was understandable and those UFO laser blasts sound absolutely great as well!

According to the Criterion Collection, the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm magnetic full-coat three-track master.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated audio workstation.

Subtitles are in English SDH.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Robinson Crusoe on Mars – The Criterion Collection #404” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary – Featuring screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, Oscar-winning special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak, and excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin
  • Destination Mars – (19:30) A video featurette by filmmaker and space historian Michael Lennick detailing the science behind the film
  • Music video – (4:34) Victor Lundin’s song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” receives a music video courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
  • Stills gallery – Using your remote, you can view the various concept artwork and production material for the film.
  • Theatrical trailer – (4:01) The theatrical trailer for “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”.

EXTRAS:

Included is a 14-page booklet featuring an essay by Michael Lennick as well as Melchior’s “Brief Yargorian Vocabulary” (a glossary of original alien dialect) and a list of facts about Mars, both from Melchior’s original screenplay.

One must put themselves through the shoes of those who lived in the early ’60s.  The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full steam and both countries were committed to their space program and the future of space exploration.

In 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel to space on Vostok 1.  Three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth and that same year, President Kennedy gave a speech about the importance of America getting to the moon.

So, naturally space exploration was in the minds of many Americans.  But as America was focused in getting to the moon, other countries including the United States have also focused on sending spacecraft, orbiters and rovers to Mars.  And many programs were unsuccessful.

But in 1964, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” was shown in theaters and while many sci-fi films tend to focus on alien invasion of planet Earth, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” fascinated movie-goers as it pertained to space exploration as many people believed that Mars would be a planet where people would find alien life, that something had to exist in the planet that is next to Earth.

So, for me to watch this in 2010, especially how nearly five decades later, the planet Mars is still on our minds as NASA continues to explore life and water in the planet and the excitement still exists, even after we have discovered many Earth-like planets in other galaxies.  Also, exciting is to see how the technical side of science as thought of back then were employed in this film.

Yes, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” was a sci-fi film, a B movie that literally banked on the special effects and popularity of filmmaker Byron Haskin and what he had accomplished in “The War of the Worlds” and “The Outer Limits”.  But the writers were smart to follow science of that era of space exploration and also to develop technologies that they felt would exist in the future.  And interesting enough, there are aspects of the film that scientists are quite amused of watching this film today because those technologies exist today and some of the science is still relevant today.  But of course, some of the crazy and ridiculous imagination of the writers.

Although I would believe that many people are probably not familiar with the character of “Robinson Crusoe”, I think many people can see a connection with the Tom Hanks film “Castaway” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”.  A person taken out of his real life element, trying to survive in an area where no human life exists and the isolation one goes through of living alone for a long period of time.  Whereas Tom Hanks’ character had a volleyball named Wilson to converse with in “Castaway”, Paul Mantee’s Commander Draper had Mona the monkey.

And while the first half of the movie was quite intriguing as we see how Draper does all he can to survive and how the monkey proves to be an interesting character as well, it’s when the film gets to its second half where I would seem to guess that moviegoers at the time were wondering “where are the aliens?” and that is where Haskin delivers as we get the hostile UFO’s trying to blast Draper and his newly discovered humanoid friend Friday.  The storyline which is all about survival in the Martian planet is the focal point from beginning to end.

I would imagine that when Friday was discovered and we see this humanoid sporting Egyptian style of hair, sandals and without a shirt, critics at the time probably saw sci-fi kitschiness.  But people have to realize that this was a low-budget sci-fi film and it has been discussed for many generations that perhaps the set, the technology and even the UFO’s were from previous Haskin films from the ’50s.  Probably true but I don’t think I was so in awe of the technology compared to a “Star Trek” TV episode which came out five years after this film.

Sure, there are some farfetched ideas featured in the film.  In one scene, a meteor explodes and black parts of the meteor can be seen falling down on both Draper and Friday.  Granted, I would imagine that the high heat of those meteor parts would have been quite deadly for humans.  Also, when people see sausages come out of plants in mars, I found it to be quite humorous but yet, I suppose it works with the whole context of the film especially its overall look.

So, while I was watching this film, I had an enjoyable time watching this old sci-fi film.  I was not expecting anything significant in terms of the look of the film considering the year it was made and if anything, I was just hoping we wouldn’t see creatures come out with rubberized suits.  So, the fact that the film played off of Draper’s isolation and survival was very intriguing and in some ways, if you enjoy Bear Grylls on “Man vs. Wild”, imagine Commander Draper as a Bear Grylls-like character in this sci-fi film.

While watching this film, I had the chance to watch it with a few others and interesting, they had a different perspective towards the film. One felt “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” had a homo-erotic sensibility to it, while another felt it was a film that would probably inspire Gene Roddenberry.

As for the Blu-ray release, this is definitely a wonderful looking film on Blu-ray compared to the original Criterion Collection LD and 2007 Criterion Collection DVD release.  With the clarity of the details throughout the film, the fact that you can see rock formations and ever crack and granule to the hair puffing out of Mona the monkey with such clarity, you can’t help but feel that this is probably the best looking version of the film on video.  And if you love the film, which I know many sci-fi fans consider “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” to be a fan favorite, then this Blu-ray release is what you are looking for.  Solid PQ and clear lossless monaural soundtrack.

As for special features, the features remain the same as the 2007 release but for those who owned the original LD version of the film and were hoping that the text supplements that were included in the older LD and not on the DVD release (well, actually there was a PDF with excerpts ala DVD-rom and played on a computer), will appear on the Blu-ray release.  Unfortunately, the screenplay or Robert Skotak’s “Retroview” text supplement are not included on the Blu-ray.  So, if those text supplements are still important to you, you may want to hang on to that old Criterion Collection LD.

And if you own the 2007 “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” DVD (which was a solid Criterion Collection release), the upgrade to Blu-ray is definitely worth it.  Especially if you love/enjoy the film!

Overall, I am biased towards sci-fi films and I definitely enjoy classic and even a few kitschy sci-fi films but I also know that not everyone digs analog sci-fi films, let alone classic sci-fi films that may be too dated for their personal taste. I can’t say that “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” will be an awesome viewing experience because it’s not exactly the greatest sci-film ever made.   But I will say that it is a good, entertaining classic sci-fi film worth checking out.

So, if you are a fan of classic sci-fi, then most definitely give “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” on Blu-ray a try!






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