There exists in so much science fiction a fantasy of heroic, ennobling loneliness, of entire planets available just for you to explore, or perhaps for you and an unobtrusive little companion, a robot, say, or a primate. Special effects pioneer-turned-director Byron Haskin’s wonderfully imaginative Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) begins with US astronaut Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) crashes on the red planet. It proves just barely inhabitable, a world of desert canyons and columns of flame, like Death Valley meets Kuwait after the first Gulf War. Draper has lost his one and only shipmate, Colonel Dan (Adam West, a couple of years shy of Bat-fame), who it seems to me may have quite possibly also been his secret lover, and from whom he’s inherited Mona, a feisty little monkey in an orange space suit who does all sorts of very funny little monkey things but is clearly no replacement for a buddy, colleague, or boyfriend. Fortunately, Draper is fit, resourceful, endlessly curious, and, most of all, lucky.
Fascination with Mars overpowers grief or despair, its glowing, oxygen-rich rocks like hot potatoes, its subterranean deposits of pastel-coloured stuff, its peculiar vegetation, which Draper consumes and gradually converts into very silly-looking tunics and Robin Hood hats, and most of all its gorgeous landscapes that expand and undulate, traversed by balls of fire that meander the terrain like wandering bison. Early on we’re offered a rather long sequence during which Draper silently makes his first baffling geological discoveries. There is then a subsequent scene where Draper simply describes all of them into his recording device. The movie takes its sweet time, it’s true, but it’s never hard to watch, being so vibrantly visualized and so dramatically scored by Van Cleave, whose themes reminds me of some of the music Howard Shore’s composed for David Cronenberg. If you happened to have sees Cast Away (2000) you might recall that the best parts of the movie by far were just Tom Hanks wordlessly negotiating his survival on the desert isle. There’s a somewhat similar dynamic at work here, a focus on tasks, labour, and reward. Long stretches of the movie resemble a fake documentary, an episode of Intergalactic Geographic, if you will, yet with enough time Draper will inevitably discover that he’s not alone, that like Daniel Defoe’s hero he gets his own Friday (Victor Lundin), an alien who looks a lot like an ancient Egyptian with immaculate grooming, and whose language sounds not unlike Nahuatl. However, like the archetypically asinine American abroad, as soon as Draper learns that Friday can talk he immediately assumes his new friend will have to learn English.
There’s a wealth of future-retro imagery to enjoy here—the tape decks, pulsating radar, and buttons like Starburst candies—but the aesthetic of Robinson Crusoe on Mars is far too magnificently realized to be reduced to kitsch, and its science is actually remarkably sound given what we knew about Mars at the time, and some of Draper’s equipment, such as his portable video camera unit, are positively prescient. The special effects are fluid and striking, like those mining ships that appear in the Martian sky with unnerving swiftness, though they look an awful lot like the terrifying Martian ships that arrived to slaughter the citizens of Earth in Haskin’s earlier War of the Worlds (53). Not least among the movie’s most impressive elements are its sounds, such as that of Draper’s ship rocketing through space at unfathomable speed in the very first scene. It’s reason alone to seek out the movie on Criterion’s brand-new blu-ray edition, along with its terrific documentary explaining the movie’s relative scientific verisimilitude, and a cute music video for a song about the movie composed and performed by Lundin, whose lyrics imply that maybe he really wanted to play the lead.