Thinking It Wonderful

5 Jun

“Have you ever had the experience of seeing a film you saw thirty or even forty years ago and thought wonderful? Avoid it, I urge you. Appallingly disillusioning. One remembers something that never had any reality.”
-Robertson Davies  World Of Wonders

We decided not to take the advice of the character in Davies’ novel and viewed “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” (1964) after not having seen the picture for several decades. We’re pleased to say that Davies’ character was wrong. While we’d never thought the film was great art, we remembered it as a not badly put together little movie that was a lot better than many other sci-fi films of the same era. (This post contains a few spoilers, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.)

Hot Times on Mars

Give it a viewing

The plot points in many sci-fi movies don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Rather than letting these inconsistencies spoil the story though, we like to think that these films work on the same level that dreams do, with the same irrationalities one finds in dreams. One of these irrational moments occurs as the film begins, when a too-close-for-comfort meteor forces the inhabitants (Paul Mantee, Adam West, and a monkey) of a spacecraft orbiting Mars to escape to the planet’s surface. The men inexplicably escape in separate capsules, planning to rendezvous later. We follow Mantee as he lands roughly but unscathed on Martian soil.

It falls on Mantee’s shoulders to carry the film by himself in the sequences that follow, a feat that he performs admirably. We follow his character Kit Draper as he struggles to find oxygen, food, water, and the location of his partner, Dan McReady (West). Draper’s hopes are dashed when he finds McReady’s wrecked capsule and his crewmate’s severed hand. This is a tough break for Draper, but not for the audience – poor Adam West is alarmingly wooden with the few lines he has. (Just for the record, we like Adam West – in recent years he has voiced cartoon characters based on his off-screen persona.)

Just when Draper seems ready to lose his mind from loneliness (the monkey, Mona, is cute, but not a much of a raconteur) he discovers that Mars is a lot more populated than he thought. Aliens from a planet orbiting another star are running a mining operation using slave labor. An escaped slave (Victor Lundin) seeks refuge in Draper’s abode. Draper is at first wary of the interloper, but decides to call him ‘Friday.’

In the scenes that follow, Draper is (in our humble opinion) rather ethnocentric, insisting that Friday learn to speak English (and for naming him Friday, rather than asking his name.) He does however, pick up words in his alien companion’s language, so he gets points from us for that.

We’re not going to recap the whole rest of the movie – that’d leave you with no reason to see the film. We will however, mention one thing we thought was cool when we first saw the picture and still seemed cool on a second viewing. “Friday’s” erstwhile captors are a persistent lot – their spaceships appear at intervals searching for the escapee. The ships move in an odd, herky-jerky fashion across the screen that we totally loved.

The special effects aren’t all that great, but to us that does not matter much. We’ve seen a number of terrible movies with great special effects. Some of the effects scenes are animated cartoons, but we couldn’t care less. There are scenes shot in Death Valley with a matted-in red sky that we liked despite their primitiveness.

Years ago, a friend noted that the film does a good job of capturing the ‘feel’ of things – running water, the almost palpable sense we get when Draper cuts a Martian plant that looks like a sausage.

So for us the verdict is in – instead of avoiding that old movie you thought wonderful, seek it out.

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