Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Mars Gravity Probe One is completing a successful orbital survey of the Red Planet when an encounter with a meteor forces the crew, Col. Dan "Mac" McReady & Cmdr. Christopher 'Kit' Draper, to abandon ship in a pair of landing capsules. Kit's vehicle is destroyed on landing and now, separated from his friend, he must find a way to survive on a planet so hostile that the very air is unbreathable.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars may be one of the worst titles in science fiction cinema, but it does neatly encompass the plot, which is an outer space adaptation of Daniel Defoe's classic novel. Containing all the elements right down to an interstellar Man Friday, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a reasonably "hard" science fiction story set on a Mars that was still credible before the Mariner 4 space probe revealed in 1965 just how dead Mars really is. The Mars of the film is a deadly desert of a place of freezing cold, volcanic activity that is lacking both water and oxygen. Equipt with what he can salvage from the wreckage of his ship, Kit and Mona, a wooly monkey who is the only other survivor of the crash, sets out in a desperate race against time to find the basics of life before the air tanks in his space suit run dry. He shows remarkable ingenuity as he unlocks the alien resources of his new home; finding rocks that burn like a submariner's oxygen candle, subterranean pockets of water, Martian food, and other necessities. Along the way he also learns to deal with the knowledge that he is utterly alone.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is remarkable in that it is writer/director Ib Melchior's (Angry Red Planet, Reptilicus) one decent film. It's even more remarkable when you consider that the original screenplay had Kit fighting all sorts of weird monsters and adopting a Martian armadillo as a pet. Under Byron Haskin's (The War of the Worlds) direction, Robinson Crusoe on Mars becomes a proper adventure story with well-thought out props such as Kit's all-in-one portable computer/media centre that today would be replaced with an off the shelf cell phone, sand-powered alarm clock, and Friday's oxygen pills. Paul Mantee does a solid job of carrying the film for most of the running time with no one to act against except a monkey and Victor Lundin brings a certain pathos to his role as Friday. 21st century viewers may be put off by an alien with a completely human appearance, but I would argue that making Friday a fantastic would merely throw up a barrier between the actor and the audience. Rounding out the cast is future Batman Adam West who puts in a decent days work with his dozen or so lines.
Unavailable for many years, Criterion has wisely issued the film on DVD with a host of extras including Lundin singing. Whether this was a good idea or not, we leave to the reader.