Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) – Directed by Byron Haskin – Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Mona the Woolly Monkey, and Adam West.
In hindsight, there was no way this film was going to live up to the opening five minutes, because not many films could live up to an opening that includes a rocket ship, Adam West, and a monkey.
There’s another dude in the rocket ship, an actor named Paul Mantee playing a character named Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper, but you won’t care about him because he didn’t go on to play Batman two years later. OK, that’s unfair, because he’s a perfectly fine actor who went to have one of those truly awesome careers where he seemed to guest star on one or two TV shows every year (including Batman), but still, when Draper ejects from their rocket ship and the film goes with him, it’s hard not to feel a bit of a letdown.
ROBINSON is exactly what you’d think – a guy gets marooned and has to figure out a way to survive on the surface of Mars. So it’s like Castaway except in space and where the lead actor never loses weight or cuts his hair or goes the bathroom.
I’m not going to dog ROBINSON for not being Castaway because Castaway was boring, too. Wait, did I not mention that ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is boring? Because it is.
Really, really boring.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell – Draper and Adam West eject in separate escape pods and crash on Mars. Draper walks across lots of sands and hills to get to West, only to find out that he’s dead. The monkey isn’t dead, though, which is probably a good thing because West seemed very fond of that durn little critter and if he survived and the monkey didn’t he’d probably spend a lot of time weeping. Draper and the monkey go to a cave and turn it, as best they can, into an apartment. There’s all sorts of scenes about needing oxygen and water. Draper figures out how to make oxygen from burning rocks and the monkey finds water in the underground canals.
This goes on foreverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
I mean, I get it, it’s a survival movie. Survival means things like food and water and, if you happen to find yourself on Mars, oxygen. All true. But watching a guy endlessly suck oxygen out of a tank, and turning that oxygen on and off so he can conserve it, and then watch him gag for air every couple minutes, I mean, crapola, when the alien shows up and has his magic oxygen pills, you’re so thankful that you don’t have to watch Draper boil rocks for oxygen anymore that … that …
Well, honestly, by that point, the movie was too far and too gone to get me back.
Let’s talk about the monkey. Monkeys are fun. This monkey likes to eat extra paste from the tubes of space food-
OK, let’s talk about space food for a second. I love – LOVE – when movies do things like this. (I love it both ironically and non-ironically.) The filmmakers can imagine building a two-man rocketship to get to Mars but they can’t imagine having food not come in tubes. I know, I know, they’re certainly smart enough to imagine non-tubed food, and they use the tube food to add to the realism (they even trumpet the scientific authenticity on the movie poster), and realism can be awesome, but when there’s so little going on, you sit there thinking things like, “Why do they still have tube food in the future?” and “Why is it in green tubes?” and “Man, that f*cking monkey sure likes that godd*mn paste food, doesn’t he?”
Back to the monkey. The monkey provides a bit of comic relief and he’s the one who discovers the underground water AND FOOD while Mr. Human Astronaut is making oxygen in a crock pot.
Take that, authentic science.
And, yeah, that’s about it on the monkey.
ROBINSON goes on and on and on, and there’s plenty of really nice sets to look at, and as far as a one man, one monkey survival story goes, this is about as good as you could expect in 1964, but it seems like the movie should be just about ending when the alien shows up.
The alien is part of a slave labor workforce and he escapes and Draper takes him in (seemingly just to threaten him incessantly) and he names him Friday just so the name of the movie makes some actual sense and the slowly start to trust each other as the alien slave owning miners keep coming back.
Oh, the alien is played by Victor Lundin, and went on to write a song called “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” that he played at conventions and that Criterion made a video for, because what the hell else do they have to do? Here it is:
I love the internet.
They go underground, they follow the caves, they end up at a pole, they build a fort, a fireball hits, and just when you’re like, Man, these guys have done all this just to die, an Earth ship shows up, and takes them all away.
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS isn’t a horrendously bad movie by any stretch. For what it is, it’s a perfectly fine survival story, and the new Criterion DVD is beautiful to look at, and this might very well be a case of me not appreciating the movie in the context of its release date, but it is a too-long, too-tedious film.