Blu-Ray Review: ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS

The Criterion Collection generally doesn't deal in genre. So, when the company digs into their library to a release a vintage sci-fi title on Blu-Ray, great expectations arise. In the case of Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), these expectations should be tempered. The film exemplifies a style of genre cinema that was outmoded by a new wave of science fiction -- and science -- that would change the world in the late 1960s. Now, the film's charm largely lies in its colorful imagery, clever effects work,and bright-eyed optimism about space travel.

As one might guess, the film is an adaption of Daniel Defoe's short story. Here, the Crusoe character is a U.S. astronaut named Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee). Kit is on a journey to Mars with his cohort Dan McReady (played by a pre-Batman Adam West). The spacecraft crashes. With the help of a monkey astronaut who was along for the ride, Kit figures out how to survive in the new environment. Eventually, the human-animal team discover that they are not alone: other beings occupy the red planet. The discovery of additional life opens up a world of adventure and danger.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars reflects an era where space exploration was in its infancy. The attitude of the protagonist mirrors an engineering mindset that fostered the American aerospace and computer industries. Kit Draper is analytical, resourceful, and optimistic. The crash landing on an unexplored planet presents him with a series of challenges that he solves through logic and acquired knowledge. The film's special effects were surely state of the art for early 1960s Hollywood. The techniques used to visualize the Martian landscape -- location shooting, studio sets, optical effects, and matte paintings -- are crude by current standards, but the complexity of what Haskin and his crew achieved with available means is impressive. This is particularly the case in the third act when the characters traipse across a varied terrain that encompasses deserts, polar caps, and volcanoes.

Two significant events cast a long shadow over Robinson Cruse on Mars and other films of its type. 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared in 1968. That film's numerous technical innovations (e.g,. computerized motion control, detailed compositing work, slit-scan photography) paved the way for the modern era of special effects. Additionally, the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 surely made the story -- a cute monkey astronaut hunting for indigenous Martian sausage? -- seem naive and child-like. To be fair, this movie was geared towards young people. Like cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robinson Cruse on Mars delivers a thrilling journey through a fantastic environment that isn't necessarily supposed to reflect objective reality. However, it is hard to ignore the cinematic and historical context.

Technical specs for this new Blu-Ray match The Criterion Collection's typically high standards. The newly restored high-def transfer was sourced from a 4K scan of an interpositive struck from the original Techniscope negative. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is maintained and the monaural audio track is uncompressed

The image and sound are generally quite good. The MPEG-4 AVC encoded video streams at a high average of 35 mbps. The transfer is clean and grain-heavy. Robinson Crusoe on Mars has a color scheme that really pops on Blu-Ray; the use of hot colors and filtered light sources create a look that is verges on psychedelia. At times, the image seems to suffer from a clash from inherent qualities and post-processing. The appearance of the actors is waxy, which is a likely consequence of digital noise reduction, and the multi-colored lighting tends to add a sickly hue to the waxy skin. This is probably not the intended effect.

As to extras, all of the materials -- including the essays in the booklet -- were ported over from the 2007 DVD release. There are no new additions.
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