Thursday, 19 November 2015

robinson crusoe on mars...

robinson crusoe on mars is a film that does exactly what its title suggests. it’s also kind of like a 1960s version of the martian.

when his spaceship is hit by an asteroid, commander christopher draper (paul mantee) finds himself stranded on the surface of mars with only his pet monkey, mona, to keep him company. together, draper and mona must figure out a way to survive this most hazardous environment, all the while hoping that someone is coming to rescue them.

robinson crusoe on mars opens with a scene in which adam west, playing draper’s co-pilot, has a conversation with a floating monkey wearing a spacesuit. it is the most awesome opening of any film ever, but it’s also kind of misleading. to my modern sensibilities, a film that opens with adam west talking to a monkey in a spacesuit is going to fall into that so-bad-it's-good movie category. i was expecting queen of outer space or santa claus vs. the martians, but once draper lands on mars things get a bit more serious.

the first thing to note about this film is that it’s practically silent. the filmmakers get around the problem of draper being along by having him talk to his monkey and occasionally to record his thoughts in a journal, and he also has some instructional videos to hand, kind of like youtube tutorials about how to survive on mars. despite all this, there is very little dialogue for what at first seems like a typical schlocky b-movie, and as a result of this the film has a kind of haunting intensity, particularly when draper is exploring the martian landscape alone.

the first half of the film is really about draper figuring out how to survive on mars; how to get water, how to breath, what he’s going to eat. the solutions to these problems are more science-fiction than science-fact (despite the claims of the original publicity material), but there is a reality to his struggle to find them and a tension in the moments when he’s running out of air or water. his biggest struggle in the film, however, is with increasing loneliness and isolation. draper finds himself hallucinating at one point, and realises that the isolation is driving him mad. he confesses that although he spent two months in an isolation chamber in training, the fact that he knew he was getting out got him through it. it’s knowing that you’re going to be alone forever that’s tough.

i don’t know about that. there were moments where i kind of envied draper in his martian cave, alone forever. there’s something comforting to me about knowing that you will never again have to deal with people and their endless attention-seeking social media updates. i was actually disappointed when another character turned up, around halfway through.

having done their best to establish a realistic story world, we are then introduced to an alien race mining mars for ore with the help of slaves, and another alien race intent on destroying them. suddenly draper finds himself thrust into the middle of a space war and has to survive being shot at whilst managing to keep one of the escaped slaves alive. what does work about this is that the film keeps the aliens at arms length, and other than his new companion draper never encounters them in the flesh, which adds a welcome sense of mystery.

the director, byron haskin, was clearly the perfect person to direct this film, having previously directed an adaptation of treasure island and the 1953 version of war of the worlds (there is definitely a resemblance to the alien spacecraft of that film here). it also has to be said that the design and the effects in robinson crusoe on mars are pretty impressive for the time, even if they do reuse some of the same shots over and over again. mars itself is also very well designed and the landscape shots look fantastic on blu-ray.

overall, robinson crusoe on mars is a bit of a mixed bag. there is a great film here about a man struggling to survive the perils of an alien world and discovering that perhaps the greatest hazard he has to overcome is himself. at the same time, all this is happening on a stylized, sci-fi version of mars, and while that brings an element of camp excitement to the experience, everything great about it being on mars is at odds with the more down-to-earth nature of the story. as a result the film does outstay its welcome towards the end and feels a little directionless at times. that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting watch and particularly given the recent success of the martian it is interesting to see how filmmakers tackled a similar story over fifty years ago. also, there is a monkey wearing a space suit. so there's that!

eureka entertainment release robinson crusoe on mars in a dual format edition on 23rd of november 2015

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