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Robinson Crusoe on Mars Blu-ray Review

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A tremendously thoughtful and evocative reworking of Daniel Defoe's classic

by Chris McEneany Jan 29, 2011

  • Movies review

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    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £24.77

    Blu-ray Review

    Despite being saddled with one of the worst titles in the genre, science fiction gem Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), is actually a tremendously thoughtful and evocative reworking of Daniel Defoe's classic castaway saga of a lone traveller forced to survive against adversity in an environment far removed from anything he is familiar with. Directed with a measured panache by Byron Haskin, who had previously brought the Martians to us on Earth with the colourful, and Oscar-winning The War Of The Worlds, and also tackled the nuts and bolts of intergalactic adventure with Conquest Of Space, Crusoe would mark a turning point in sci-fi and how filmmakers went about depicting the prospect of otherworldly encounters. Scribed by veteran of science fiction screenplays, Ib Melchior, who was originally intended to direct as well, Haskin's take on the tale of a human astronaut marooned on the surface of Mars was channelled into the realistic psychology and moral dilemma of such a dangerous and lonely predicament, rather than simply being a vehicle with which to crowd the screen with creatures on the rampage.

    Given that audiences throughout the previous two decades had been inundated with monsters from the Id, monsters from the atom and monsters just from beyond and had lapped them all up, rubbery tentacles and all, this was quite a gamble. Yet the basic concept was a solid one and a confirmed favourite, with Dafoe's book never going out of print and America's desire to keep its flag flying in the face of the ultimate adversity - the Space Race had just begun as had the country's involvement in Vietnam - proving to be vital and obsessive urges to both Haskin and Melchior. The War Of The Worlds had ensured that the viewing public demanded spectacle and no-one understood that more that Haskin, whose career reached back into the days of D.W. Griffith (working as a cinematographer, and later in the special effects department for Warner). But their determination to provide something more thought-provoking was to be the double-edged sword that would sink the project at the box-office and garner wildly diverse critiques, yet ensure the movie a lasting place in the hearts of sci-fi fans the world over.

    Picture Quality

    Criterion's SD DVD release had boasted a wonderful transfer that showcased Winton Hoch's cinematography and brought out all the lushness and vivid acuity of the dazzling Technicolor. It was highly detailed and the print – from a 35mm 2-perforation A/B interpositive struck from the original negative – was bright, deep and in almost immaculate condition, save for a few nicks, pops and hairs. I doubted then that the film could really have looked that much better given a hi-def makeover. Well, I was wrong, of course. Hailing from the same source and created on a Spirit 4k Datacine, this 1080p AVC incarnation becomes clearer, cleaner and much more pronounced in terms of depth, stability and three-dimensionality. This freshly deepened quality adds a lot of beauty to an image that was already quite jaw-dropping to begin with. Even close-ups offer more substantial depth than we saw previously on the DVD.

    Colours are even richer and more gorgeous than before. Those Astounding Tales-style Martian skies throb with retina-seducing reds and oranges that offer spectacularly deep saturation, but no hint of smearing, or of any dreaded banding, although reds can sometimes look a little lively with noise. Occasional shots don't look quite as bright, such as when our two survivors look down upon the ancient caves – but this is part of the original source photography and the use of matte paintings etc. Sometimes, the film can have a sort of grubby, lived-in look, but this also adds to the visual texture of the environment. Skin-tones are deep and tanned – as well they should be – but they look natural to the era in which the film was made and the style of photography. The fanciful flora and marine-vegetation are nice and vital-looking, and those hurtling fire-balls retain their depth and incendiary vigour. The arid complexion of much of the exteriors is handled well, with neat rock and crevice delineation, and good sharp shadow intrusions. The palette does exactly what Haskin and Hoch intended it to do – and that's to bring the film to lurid, scorching 50's comic-book life. There is even the nice touch that depicts the smooth black space above the atmospheric blood-red skies in the same exotic matte-shot. Some slight fading and discolouration can be seen but, once again, this is down to the source and not an error of the transfer.

    As I said, detail is now even greater than it was before. The blistered rocky terrain of Mars stands up to even deeper scrutiny now. Draper's equipment – the voice recording unit, oxygen cylinders, the video-camera and his side-arm (whopping big .44 Magnum!) - are all picked out with fine attention and sharp delineation. We get close-up facial texture, with pores, marks and stubble all clearly rendered. Clothing and material gets the same treatment, with the dirt, dust and wear-and-tear of various scrapes clearly presented.

    Contrast is great and does a fine job with the various and often intensely composed vistas. Black levels are solid for the most part, but some moments display a slight drop in strength. Scenes set out in space are deep and smooth and inky, and the cave-set shadows do not lose substance and do not mask any details within. They are not as boldly thick and impenetrable, on the whole, as transfers from more recent films, but they add plenty of atmosphere and depth to an image that is often composed and framed like a comic panel. The flames of all those fiery eruptions and the bright burning orb that sets the whole adventure in motion are suitably spectacular, and the crystalline ice-whites during the climax are clean and stark, and, for the most part, shimmer-free.

    I had no problems with artefacts, compression or with edge enhancement, although this is a tricky film to properly appreciate with its occasionally glaring demarcation lines between matte elements, photographic and optical effects sometimes looking like the worst kind of haloing and fuzzed-up ringing. But the transfer, itself, is unmistakably clean and free of digital tinkering. Grain is retained, and there is no issue with DNR, you'll be pleased to know. This is a great looking hi-def image for a film from 1964. Robinson Crusoe On Mars gets a major thumbs-up from me. It appears bright, bold, vivid and offers a fine and faithful film-like presentation that is well worth the upgrade.

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Picture Quality

    Sound Quality

    I had been very impressed with the original mono track that appeared on the SD DVD, but Criterion have actually improved upon it with this uncompressed PCM mix for Robinson Crusoe On Mars. Indeed, it is a real ear-opener, folks. For those who may think that an old single-channel audio mix lacks integrity, depth and design, this is the track to broaden their acoustic horizons. With excellent fidelity and lots of unexpected detail perfectly contained within, the track sounds boisterous and active. Dialogue is always clear and whatever damage there may have been due to master track's age there is virtually no sign of it, with the painstaking restoration process that it has undergone.

    Bass levels are carried off well, with things such as the alien bombardment of the mountains and, especially, the impacts that are felt in the caverns beneath, the landing amid the inferno, Draper crashing through the rock floor of a cave etc, all sounding appropriately meaty. The booster rockets on the Elinor have weight to them and it is interesting to note that when the ship roars towards us and then rapidly away again, we hear them arrive and then recede with quite amazing precision and dynamism. Even the fly-bys it makes as Draper watches forlornly from down below have a dedicated placement within the limited soundscape - super-sonic whooshes that energise the onscreen action. This is very impressive indeed. The sound of the cascading rocks loosened by the alien bombing is punchy and effective too, as is the brittle noise of the laser-canons that stipple the Martian surface. Even the lighter, gentler effects of scuffling grit and stones underfoot are clear and play a part in a well-detailed mix.

    The score from Van Cleave is presented with warmth and occupies a nice level in the overall soundscape - never too overpowering, but always ebullient and involving. I have to say that I was really impressed with this track. It may not improve dramatically on the already terrific results that the previous audio performance provided, but this is a track that manages to place a lot of finite detail inside it that really adds to the enjoyment of the film. Hats off to Criterion's engineers for crafting this one, then.

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Sound Quality

    Extras

    There's quite a good little bunch of goodies on offer here, which seem to be a lift from the original Criterion Laserdisc and SD DVD. The first is the commentary track, which is a good one, and packed with interesting anecdote. Featuring the screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, special effects designer Robert Skotak (who acts here as the film's historian) and even excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin. Recorded separately and introduced by a moderator, the track does contain a few lulls, but they are of no consequence as the wealth of material covered is extensive and entertaining. Melchior talks about the changes that were made to his screenplay and the relative nonsense of some of the sights and situations that we see - well, quite a lot of them, actually. Haskin's recollections are good and fresh in his mind and are slotted in at appropriate moments in the movie. Oscar-winning visual effects man, Skotak, provides nicely knowledgeable middle-of-the-road insight and opinion, but Mantee is on excellent form. Admittedly, he does tend to go on about the acting method an awful lot, but he is bursting with anecdote and personal reminiscence - including his pride at providing the first nude scene of 1964 with his Martian Jacuzzi sequence. Lundin is peculiar fun as well ... but only brought on board once his character of Friday appears in the film. Overall, this a worthwhile track.

    Then we get a slightly tangential documentary entitled Destination: Mars that seeks to explore the science behind the movie, revealing not just how accurate the makers were with regards to the known facts of the time, but also how surprisingly prophetic some of their depictions actually were, as well. Naturally, a lot of the material also debunks some areas of the production too. Running for 19 minutes and presented by filmmaker and space historian Michael Lennick, who wrote and presented a successful series about the space race, this is a fine companion piece to the movie.

    Lennick also writes an essay on the film that comes in the form of a little booklet. For pure entertainment value, this also contains some Yargorian terms and their translations. Yargor was originally the planet that Friday was to have come from and this is a fine little addition to the film's charm. There is also a page with facts about Mars that Melchior's screenplay had also contained to help the filmmakers get their depiction accurate. It is surprising just how naïve some of the scientific beliefs of the time actually were. Such as that a human being could stay alive on Mars for longer than a native of our own tropics could exist in the Arctic, and that lower forms of life, such as insects, certainly exist on the surface!

    The music video features Victor Lundin's song entitled simply Robinson Crusoe On Mars and is set to a lengthy montage of clips from the movie. Hailing from Lundin's 2000 album Little Owl, this is actually incredibly affecting. Coming across as a Country and Western ballad about the star of the film and how it was his destiny to finally travel to the stars, it is definitely hokey to nth degree, but there is such a warm-hearted and fuzzy aura of sentimental nostalgia about it that it cannot help but be wholly infectious. Some of the video clips are repeated for no apparent reason, like a puzzling splice-shot of Mantee, but to be honest, I loved it ... and I really didn't expect to. In fact, I can't get the tune out of my head.

    Rounding things off are a decent stills gallery featuring conceptual sketches, production photos and designs, excerpts of Melchior's original screenplay and promotional material. The extent to which the original screenplay ran is vividly rendered with designs for Draper's equipment, the true Martian companion that he was initially intended to have - a dressed-up Armadillo - and there are some great artist visualisations of the alien landscape, including some composite test shots of the Death Valley rock formations and canyons.

    All in all, a rewarding selection of bonus features.

    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Extras

    Verdict

    Robinson Crusoe On Mars is a marvellously colourful and atmospheric slice of the purest science fiction. Haskin's intergalactic treatment of Dafoe's immortal tale is as serious and as realistic as a flamboyant Martian opus from the sixties could ever hope to be. The ace up its sleeve is that it doesn't poke fun at the genre and attempts to give its audience some food for thought at the same time as enthralling them. The spectacle is there, all right, but it is tempered with tone that could even be described as partially documentary in manner. Lundin can be vaguely wooden in his role of the cosmic Man-Friday, but Mantee is very good with a part that demands he act off of nobody but a monkey for the majority of the film's running time. Without a doubt, this imaginative production is one of the great unsung heroes of the genre and richly deserves to be reappraised by fans who may not have had the opportunity to see the film in such a glorious condition as this.

    The presentation of the movie is absolutely tip-top. The SD transfer that came before was wonderful, but Criterion's new Blu-ray edition offers a simply stunning reproduction of this Techniscope film from 1964. The colours are bold, the image full of detail and there is a new level of depth that really brings the adventure to vivid and dramatic life. The lossless mono track is also excellently produced and brimming with fascinating detail. Extras are good, too. The commentary may be a trifle stuttery at times, but it is still much more than we might have expected and the documentary is pleasantly off-beat and engaging. Still love that song from Lundin, though - it really shouldn't work, but, like the film it is based upon, it is unique and mesmerising … and something that you can't help returning to.
    The classic tale gets an interplanetary boost from Haskin whose inimitable style and visual dexterity create a rare sci-fi gem. Robinson Crusoe On Mars makes a tremendous arrival on Blu-ray, and gets a glowing recommendation from me.

    The Rundown

    Movie

    8

    Picture Quality

    8

    Sound Quality

    7

    Extras

    7

    Overall

    8

    8
    AVForumsSCORE
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    10
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