Monday, September 25, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #175 - Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin)

I’ve been home sick for a few days and it has given me a great opportunity to get caught up on a bunch of movies, new and old. Yesterday I watched modern master Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant which was ultra-modern, hyper-scary, mega-suspenseful. It was masterful science fiction/horror of the highest order, bringing together all the technological and storytelling finesse that can make these genres so appealing when done well. The achievements were clearly of this time: in other words, there is no way this movie - with its hellish visions literally made flesh -could have been made in a different era. It got me thinking about those different eras and the shifting sands of audience expectation and context that makes our appreciation of such movies possible.
Robinson Crusoe On Mars was made in 1964, a full year before the first images from Mariner 4 started to show the world what the Red Planet actually looked like. Thus any verisimilitude or failure can be placed on the makers of the film and not on contemporary scientific understanding. Even under this difficult stricture, this movie holds up well. The film is based faithfully on Daniel Defoe’s 18th century adventure classic which tells the tale of a man shipwrecked on an island and forced, with the help of a native companion named Friday, to find food, water, shelter and ultimately meaning in a lonely and confusing life. The “On Mars” version obviously updates the story to put the wayward traveler (square-jawed Paul Mantee) out in space and stranded on Mars instead of an island in the South Pacific. The movie opens as Mantee, his co-pilot (a young and completely un-smarmy Adam West) and a woolly monkey named Mona are passing Mars on an observation mission when an errant meteor forces them off course and into Mars’ gravitational pull. Crash landing, Mantee, named Captain Kit Draper, quickly realizes his only human companionship has perished and he is now stuck on a faraway planet with nothing but a space-suit wearing Monkey for companionship. Much like Defoe’s Crusoe, Draper must begin the slow, lonely process of finding, shelter, food, water, and in this alien environment, oxygen. Through a series of alternately plausible and laughable eventualities he does manage to secure all these needs for himself. It’s worth reminding at this point that within the parameters of our contemporary understanding of the facts, his discoveries all seemed pretty plausible. In fact, in general this movie does a remarkable job of creating possibilities out of scant information. With hindsight, more than a few of the solutions Draper comes up with are remarkably prescient.
A little more than halfway through the movie we are introduced to Friday, who in this version is an alien slave forced to mine on Mars by another, dominant alien culture. Director Byron Haskin had previously directed The War Of The Worlds in 1953 and the dominant species’ vessels are remarkably similar to those in his other film, but this fact does not distract from the eeriness of their ominous presence. Friday has escaped from his slave labor but can still be tracked through wristbands he is forced to wear, thus outrunning the hostile spaceships and their deadly laser blasts becomes Draper, Friday and Mona’s reason to start traveling across Mars to the polar ice caps. They make it, they free Friday and they eventually get rescued. For its time it is as realistic as Matt Damon’s The Martian and twice as fun.

The real reason I mentioned being home sick is that the first time I saw this movie (as a TV rerun in the early 1970’s) I was in the exact same situation. I was in elementary school, home with a fever and given the luxury of our black and white Zenith being wheeled into my bedroom so I could recuperate under the healing powers of the boob tube (as my father angrily called it). I recall drifting in and out of this magical movie, with clear memories of the Martian environment, the scary alien ships, the sense of loneliness and fear, and that monkey! Yes, for me, Mona The Monkey (actually an animal named Barney with fur covered underwear to stop gender confusion) stands out in memory in the most adorable little monkey-sized space suit. I never forgot it, and when I returned to the movie as an adult, it was even more memorable than I thought. The monkey in the space suit remains my favorite detail of the movie, but with fresh eyes I was blown away by the beauty and forward-thinking vision of the sets, the colorfully tinted and ever changing skies (couldn’t see any of that on the old Zenith), the fascinating views into old technology trying to look modern - dig the early computers and especially the amazing primitive video camera, which ultimately provides one of the most magical sequences in the movie. There are plot holes and anachronisms that might make you guffaw, but if you tend toward this type of entertainment and can appreciate historical perspective as the inevitability that it is, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is an entirely satisfying and sweetly nostalgic trip to another place and time.

-          Paul Epstein

No comments: