Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) **½
The stereotype is certainly familiar enough. A would-be director walks into the movie producer’s office with his big idea. He feeds the producer a title, and then tells him, “It’s like [name of popular, profitable movie or book], but [new and exciting angle that will allow the producer to pretend he’s not just ripping off that popular, profitable movie].” The producer says, “Hmmm... I like it!” and writes the director a check. And I’m sure it really does work approximately that way from time to time. We can be fairly certain that was not the case when Ib Melchior sold Paramount his script for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, however. I mean really— “Robinson Crusoe on Mars; it’s like Robinson Crusoe, but on Mars!” Even Hollywood studio heads aren’t that dense.
And you know what? It really is just like Robinson Crusoe with the fourth planet standing in for the island, right down to the pet monkey! Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West, the Caped Crusader himself) and his copilot, Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee, from Day of the Animals and The Manitou), are orbiting the Red Planet in their Mars Gravity Probe, and are nearing the end of their survey mission. The only test remaining is the one that would send their experimental monkey, Mona, down to the planet’s surface to investigate the extent of the Martian environment’s hostility to Earth life, but both men are of the opinion that the research they have conducted thus far has yielded enough data that Mona may be spared the arduous trip. In fact, McReady and Draper are just about ready to set off for home when a huge fucking meteor enters Mars’s atmosphere on a trajectory that will carry it straight into the Mars Gravity Probe’s cockpit if the two astronauts don’t act fast. And so they do, but escaping the collision requires such vigorous maneuvering that the spacecraft burns up all the fuel for its directional rockets, and worse still, even that doesn’t quite suffice to bring the ship back into a stable orbit. With the Gravity Probe slowly but steadily dropping toward the planet, there’s nothing for it but to climb into the escape pods, and hope that they can survive long enough for somebody to come looking for them.
It’s a pretty forlorn hope, as it turns out. First of all, the Martian atmosphere, though it contains a sizable proportion of oxygen, is much too thin for humans to breathe for more than maybe fifteen minutes at a time. Water, obviously, is another problem, and then there’s the small matter of food, which the Red Planet is not known for producing in great abundance. Finally, there are certain other environmental hazards for which Draper seems curiously unprepared, given that he just spent who knows how many weeks studying conditions on the surface of Mars. Foremost among these dangers are the humongous balls of flame that roll at random over the Martian landscape, which are apparently caused by the spontaneous combustion of a strange, porous, yellow rock which is found in alarming quantities all around the landing site of Draper’s pod. Eventually, Draper manages to find shelter in a cave in the hillside overlooking the pod, and from that higher vantage point, he is able to see Colonel McReady’s pod as well. Draper figures he’ll head over that way the next morning, after he’s had a good rest.
The next day and a half prove to be quite a learning experience for the castaway astronaut. First, he discovers that he has pressing need for some kind of makeshift alarm clock when he comes within an ace of suffocating in his sleep; even at rest, his body can function on Martian air for only about an hour before needing a jolt of straight oxygen from the tank on his space suit. The next morning, he learns just how fast he can plow through his air supply when he’s exerting himself. He had estimated earlier that the contents of his oxygen tank would last him a good 60 hours, but the tank is practically empty by the time he completes the hike to McReady’s escape pod. But the real kick in the ass is that all that effort was for naught, because McReady appears to have been run over by one of those rolling fireballs just moments after touching down. That means all Draper has to show for the morning’s exertions is Mona the monkey, who survived the encounter with the fireball, and whose body’s oxygen requirements are apparently less burdensome than Draper’s, allowing her to breathe the Martian air quite comfortably. It’s a good thing, too, because Mona’s air tanks are the only thing keeping Draper alive on his walk back to the cave.
Things pick up significantly over the next few days. Draper solves his breathing problem when he discovers that the burning rocks contain more than enough oxygen to sustain their own combustion, and that the excess gas is released into the atmosphere as they burn, so that Draper can produce supplemental air for himself by letting a pile of the things smolder in a pressurized container (good thing the Mars Gravity Probe came equipped with pressure cookers, huh?). Then, with a little help from Mona, the food and water situation is brought under control. Both liquid water and vegetable life exist on Mars after all, down beneath the arid surface; all it takes to find them is a sense of smell more acute than the fairly useless one that we humans got saddled with. And while she’s going about saving Draper’s ass by leading him to the necessities of life, Mona makes herself doubly useful by providing the closest thing to companionship that the stranded astronaut is likely to have for a good long time.
Ah, but maybe I have spoken too soon. Once Draper has his shit sufficiently together that he no longer has to spend his every waking moment worrying about dying of hunger, thirst, or suffocation, he turns his attention to exploring his new home, and on his first day of serious investigation, he finds something totally unexpected. Just below the surface of an oddly shaped dirt pile, Draper discovers what looks for all the world to be a human skeleton— and a human skeleton with an obviously weapon-inflicted hole in its skull, at that! That would seem to change the situation completely, in that it means the commander not only has neighbors, but murderous neighbors. With that in mind, he swiftly dismantles the crudely etched address placard he had hung outside his cave, and remotely orders the Mars Gravity Probe (which is still orbiting uselessly a few thousand yards up in the sky) to self-destruct. That way, there’ll be no outward sign of Draper’s presence on Mars.
But he ends up meeting his neighbors anyway, and the situation proves to be a bit more complicated than it seemed at first. An honest-to-God flying saucer sets down in a valley not far from Draper’s cave one night, and when Draper goes to check it out, he finds it to be manned by aliens of two distinct races. The operators of the ship are accompanied by several dozen apparent humans, whom they are using for slave labor in a hastily organized mining camp. And while the stunned Earth-man looks on, one of those slaves (Victor Lundin, who has the dubious distinction of playing the first Klingon ever to appear on “Star Trek”) breaks free from his captors, and goes running off into the hills where Draper is hiding. The aliens dispatch a trio of apparently automated flying machines (note that the models representing them are the re-dressed hulls of Martian war machines from War of the Worlds) in pursuit of the fleeing slave, whom Draper assists by leading him to his own cave. It may be risky (those weird drone aircraft could stumble upon them at any time, after all), but Draper is willing to do just about anything if it means he’ll have somebody to talk to, and besides, it just wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe without somebody to play the role of Friday.
The plot is pretty simple from here. Draper and the alien gradually get to know and trust one another, and eventually become as close friends as the language barrier between them will allow. (Draper does teach his companion some English, but not quite enough to make him a scintillating conversationalist.) The bond between them will be tested not only by the hardships of life in isolation from any kind of functioning society, but also by the renewed efforts of the alien’s former masters to recapture him. And eventually, when Draper and his new-found friend are driven from the shelter of their cave and all seems just about lost, the radio which is all that remains of the equipment Draper was able to salvage from his ship picks up a transmission from an Earthly spaceship, which has been sent to Mars on a rescue mission. The astronaut, the alien, and the monkey presumably live happily ever.
It’s very difficult to turn a story built around a man-against-nature conflict into a compelling movie. With no sentient opposition to the heroes’ aims, there is little room for plot advancement in the usual sense, and because the visual nature of film mostly precludes delving too deep into the characters’ psyches, even the possibilities for character development are somewhat limited. This is even more strongly the case in a story with only one or two central characters— the classic castaway setup would be the obvious example even if I weren’t already talking about a movie that uses it— and when translated into film, such stories have a tendency to become dangerously episodic. Robinson Crusoe on Mars sidesteps the worst of these pitfalls by introducing “Friday’s” alien overseers, but it can still bog down pretty seriously during those parts of the movie that are not concerned directly with the chase. On the other hand, the movie’s creators have included enough thought-provoking little tidbits along the way that it remains interesting even when it fails to be exciting. The Martian environment is portrayed in a way that is at least internally consistent, if not exactly plausible in real-world terms. Sure, much of what Draper encounters on Mars smells strongly of having been written into the story in order to justify plot points that Melchior had decided on before hand, but apart from the roving fireballs, there was nothing that made me get up out of my seat and exclaim, “Oh, bullshit!” There is also a small detail of the script that I continued to ponder long after the movie ended: “Friday’s” language is a dead ringer for Aztec. My first guess was that Melchior had read Erich von Danniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and was trying to suggest that “Friday” was a descendant of Mexican Indians who had been captured by ancient astronauts from another world, but subsequent research has revealed that von Danniken’s book wasn’t published until four years after this movie’s release. Could Melchior have read some early article on the subject that predated the book? Did von Danniken merely expand on some earlier author’s ideas? Is the whole thing just a remarkable coincidence? Who knows? But in any event, this little mystery gives Robinson Crusoe on Mars an extra level of interest it might not have possessed otherwise.