Interplanetary Primate: Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) – Blu-ray review
Before The Martian, there was… Mona the Monkey. A laudable pre-Kubrick attempt at serious sci-fi scuppered by the awkward integration of its literary source.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964)
“The curse of Mars,” they called it, until Ridley Scott and Matt Damon proved in The Martian that it was possible to have a critical and commercial hit set on the Red Planet. Until then, even the likes of Andrew Stanton and Brian De Palma couldn’t convince the mainstream that jetting off to Mars was a viable destination. The trouble, of course, is that Mars is stuck between a red rock and a hard place: either it’s a silly place ruled by the most clichéd of aliens, or it’s a barren no-man’s-land where nothing happens. Few films exemplify that tension better than Robinson Crusoe On Mars.
By 1964, Byron Haskin had form in big-screen sci-fi, having created the first big-screen version of The War Of The Worlds, still – notwithstanding Orson Welles’ radio play – the definitive visualisation of the Wells novel. In those days, sci-fi was a dirty word but Haskin always treated it seriously. Hence this film, a mix of Daniel Defoe’s literary pedigree and the (then-)latest knowledge about how man might survive on Mars.
For its first act, at least, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is unusually rigorous by the standards of the genre, bearing in mind that Stanley Kubrick was only just getting around to making 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its story of an astronaut stranded on a deserted planet asks the right questions – where will he get his air and water from? What price solving those problems if all it leads to is isolation or madness?
The trouble is, the answers Haskin comes up with are nuts. Mars, here, isn’t that inhospitable. It’s apparently possible to breathe the Martin atmosphere in small doses, and water flows freely albeit in a few hard-to-find places. By the film’s mid-point, Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) – our Crusoe surrogate – has given up wearing a spacesuit at all. Were it not for the audacious, detailed matte backdrops, you might not realise he wasn’t in California.
And then there’s the question of companionship. Crusoe, after all, needs his Friday and it seems that the film has devised a clever get-out by giving Kit a research monkey, Mona, who has survived the planetfall. But here’s a 110 minute-long film, with none of the Earthbound subplots that maintained The Martian’s zesty realism, nor a lead actor of Damon’s charisma. One man and his monkey aren’t going to stretch that far… so here comes yer actual Friday (Victor Lundin), a slave being chased by maurauding alien spaceships.
At which point, the film becomes much less interesting, either as a Defoe adaptation or as science-fiction. However flawed the science, at least those early stages were trying. By its end, though, the clock has been reset several centuries to a time of simpler narratives – and even cloaked in genre allegory, the film can’t transcend the reactionary politics inherent in Friday’s character, or the banality of its chase-and-rescue plotline.
So it’s an awkward curiosity… but still one whose deft visual tone warrants a look as a placeholder in the cinema’s journey from Forbidden Planet to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Haskin’s FX are simple but have grace in their simplicity and the decision to not show the villainous aliens ensures that dodgy prosthetics are kept to a minimum. The lighting and production design give a striking palette, hyperreal without being gaudy, and the hardware has gone from satisfyingly chunky to endearingly retro without getting too dated. Robinson Crusoe On Mars is on Blu-Ray now from Masters of Cinema.