Arts

Ralph McLean's Cult Movie: Robinson Crusoe On Mars

Adam West – later to play Batman – with Mona the monkey
Ralph McLean

THE cult credentials of Robinson Crusoe On Mars are impressive. There’s that title, for a start. Rarely has a film laid out its plotline in such stark terms across the four words that make up its title.

As “doing exactly what it says on the tin” movies go, it's right up there with Snakes On A Plane. You know exactly what you’re getting the moment you’ve seen the poster.

Made in glorious, eye-popping Techniscope in 1964, it’s the tale of astronaut Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) who finds himself stranded, with his pet monkey Mona, on the barren wastes of Mars when a routine space mission goes wrong.

Outside of using the basic plot of man isolated in an alien environment, there is little to connect it to the desert island setting of Daniel Defoe’s classic story. No-one is called Robinson Crusoe and there isn’t a sun-kissed beach in sight – which only adds to its offbeat appeal.

For further evidence of its healthy cult status, look at those involved in its making. Original screenwriter Ib Melchior was a veteran of many a creaky B-movie delight from Reptilicus to Journey To The Seventh Planet and knew his space rock geography better than most.

Director Byron Haskin (who’d previously delivered the similarly colourful War Of The Worlds in 1953) crafts a weird, art-house feel from the setting that belies the film’s miniscule budget and cinematographer Winton C Hoch uses the endless expanses of Mars (mostly the wide open spaces of Death Valley and the plastic rock formations of the studio) to create a dreamlike world with orange and red skies.

If that doesn’t convince you of the quality on show here bear in mind the first actor we see filling our screens is the great Adam West, in a pre-Batman role as Draper’s co-pilot.

The brazen title, garish visual treats and familiar TV faces only begin to scratch the cult surface here, though. Freshly reissued on Blu-ray by Eureka! Video Robinson Crusoe On Mars is a complex beast at times. It’s often slow moving and thoughtful and only the film’s second half contains anything approximating real action but that hardly matters when everything looks so spaced out.

After a slow start where our stranded astronaut has to find his way around the alien planet, things pick up with the arrival of an odd Man Friday-type who leads him out of the grasp of the alien hordes who descend with destruction in mind. Mantee holds the lead role together well, although sometimes things swing a little too far into 60s camp.

For a low-budget film, though, this is visually stunning at times. The pre-CGI special effects occasionally fail to convince but the inventiveness on show makes it magical in its own way.

Coming across like a really adventurous episode of the original Star Trek – a couple of years in the future at this time, remember – it’s got echoes of the stillness that would make 2001 a game changer later and similarities to modern films like The Martian, which nicks its central premise wholesale.

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