Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Year: 1964
Production Co: Aubrey Schenck Productions
Studio: Paramount
Director: Byron Haskin
Writer: Ib Melchior/John C Higgins/Daniel Defoe
Cast: Paul Mantee, Adam West

The title of this movie seemed almost like a postmodern joke, the kind of thing the Internet has given us in today's climate of self-aware pop culture memes and the reason we get movies like Dead Snow (about Nazi zombies) or Lesbian Vampire Killers.

But it's from 1964, the dark ages of audience-participation pop culture, so it's kind of amazing anyone – let alone a big studio – thought it would play. Although on the other hand, the title tells you all it possibly could about the movie, and War of the Worlds director Byron Haskin made it independently, Paramount probably buying it after his standing with the 1953 alien invasion classic.

Astronauts Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan McReady (Batman-to-be Adam West) are on their way to Mars with their science experiment/mascot Mona the spider monkey, going through the pre-landing checks. But when they have to avoid a huge bolide in orbit it uses the last of their fuel and the landing goes badly, the module crash landing. A shaken Draper eventually finds a cave for shelter, using the oxygen he's managed to carry with him to survive but knowing it'll run out eventually – if he doesn't starve first.

He eventually finds Mona, and then the crashed lander with McReady's dead body in it, and Draper realises he's stranded alone with only the monkey for company – seemingly for life, as he can't raise Mission Control through the radio link back on the orbiter.

It's actually a spiritual older cousin to Ridley Scott's The Martian, with a large part of the midsection taken up by Draper going through the science of survival – figuring out that the strange yellow rocks, when burned, give off oxygen as well as warming him, finding the cave where Mona has found a food source, etc.

But it's when he comes across one of the cromagnon-like natives that one of the biggest nods to the novel that inspires the premise emerges. Naming the lunk 'Friday', Draper teaches him language and recruits him to an expedition that might offer one last attempt at rescue or home – all while Mars' other inhabitants close in to attack in their low-flying UFOs and very 60s-style death rays.

Haskin manages to wrangle some great imagery from the budgets and effects the era allowed. A lot of it will have little to no effect on a modern moviegoer after the decades of advances in effects we've seen since those days – the Martian attackers' ships zooming in to hover and fire their weapons, as well as the sparks and fallout from their explosive after-effects are kind of laughable.

But there are some scenes where you can feel how the weight and spectacle would have had viewers at the time enthralled. One is a shot of Draper and Friday crossing a rocky mountain range to escape their tormenters and coming across a chasm spewing fire so ferociously they can't cross it. It's just a guy on a fake rock plasterboard set at the edge of the frame and a column of fire from a backyard fire pit superimposed against a red background, but if you squint you can almost see how otherworldly and scary it might have once looked.

But in between the lines of the hokey moviemaking technology are some moments of real emotional weight. The ship racing overhead in low orbit, out of control and unreachable by radio, is a quite haunting motif that conveys the hopelessness and bleakness of Draper's situation beautifully. He hears the roar of a far off engine and looks up to see it emerge from the inky blackness, passing overhead in a dead straight line, almost taunting him with how close salvation is.

There are also some pretty inventive long shots of rocky mountain ranges awash in blood red, the nearer plate completely in shadow and showing the tiny figure of Draper scrambling ever forward.

It's cheap and a bit tattered according to today's standards, which is hard to get past, but it has a sense of scope and mood that's palpable enough all these years later. Although it's pretty amazing cinema gave us Star Wars just 13 years later, and after all these years it's still so timeless that Robinson Crusoe on Mars looks prehistoric alongside it.

Another weird thing is how abruptly it ends, as if Haskin simply ran out of time or money or they'd started shooting before the ending was written and just did it on the hoof on the day. For a visual epic it's a bit of an anticlimax.

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