Director: Byron Haskin
Criterion (under license from Paramount Home Entertainment)

Special effects pioneer and famed director, Byron Haskin, is the well-deserved focal point of Criterion’s splendid DVD release of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. Prior to directing, Haskin served as the head of Warner Bros. special effects department from 1937-1945. During this time, he was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Special Effects, while winning a Class III Technical Award from the Academy in 1938. His passion for special effects really began to pay off for genre fans when Haskin helmed the magnificent THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1953. While that film will always remain Haskin’s grandest achievement, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS stands proudly as a thoughtful, visually-arresting genre classic.

A science fiction spin on Daniel Defoe’s timeless novel, ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS mirrors its literary source in that the bulk of the film’s narrative deals with an individual fighting to survive in a hostile environment, while trying to stave off loneliness and isolation. Astronauts Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan McReady (Adam West), along with their pet monkey, are forced to land on Mars when their exploratory spaceship, the Elinor M, is thrown off course while trying to avoid collision with a fiery meteor. McReady doesn’t survive the crash landing, leaving Draper and Mona, the woolly monkey, to brave the harsh Martian landscape. The two engage in a harrowing attempt to conserve and locate oxygen, food, and water. A wonderfully sublime moment occurs when Draper discovers a new source of oxygen, and ever so softly utters, “Thank you.” The pair soon realizes that they are not alone as alien ships arrive, visiting Mars to mine ore with the aid of slave labor. One of these slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes, and Draper harbors him, christening him, “Friday.” Once Friday begins to learn some English, he and Draper become friends as they continue to struggle within the brutal Martian environment while evading the ever-present alien slavers.

Despite the modest budget, Byron Haskin and director of photography, Winton C. Hoch (1960’s THE LOST WORLD, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTIOM OF THE SEA), work wonders here. Hoch is not only a three-time Oscar winner, but is arguably John Ford’s favorite DP, as the two collaborated on some of the greatest Westerns ever made. Many of the exteriors in ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS were shot in California’s Death Valley, and these sweeping images are one of Hoch’s trademarks. Also helping to elevate the film above its financial limitations is the resourcefulness of the director. Just like his protagonist, Haskin is able to flourish within adverse situations. Sure, he essentially re-uses the Martian warships from THE WAR OF THE WORLDS here, and repeats the exact shots featuring these ships throughout the film. But, Haskin’s deft eye for scrumptious visuals, and his penchant for staging rousing action sequences shine through brilliantly. For those interested in learning more about Byron Haskin and his resourcefulness, seek out the essential, The Outer Limits: The Official Companion as authors David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen devote an entire chapter of their book to Haskin, addressing his instrumental role in the success of that marvelous TV series.

Since this is from Criterion, it should come as absolutely no surprise that ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is given a spectacular DVD release. The meticulous 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer showcases a sharp, unblemished image, while accurately replicating the film’s colors and fleshtones. The image tends to soften and exhibit some grain when effects and matte paintings are employed, but that of course is tied back to the source material and not the transfer. The English mono soundtrack is incredibly strong, and delivers the dialogue, music, and sound effects with gusto. Optional English subtitles are also provided.

Again, since this is from Criterion, it should also come as absolutely no surprise that ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is presented on DVD with a treasure trove of special features. Some of these features have been transported over from Criterion’s 1994 laser disc release of this film, including the feature length audio commentary. On hand are actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, screenwriter Ib Melchoir (THE ANGRY RED PLANET, JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET), production designer Al Nozaki (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS), and it’s moderated by Robert Skotak. Also interspersed throughout the commentary are excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with Byron Haskin, who passed away in 1984. While everyone provides fascinating insights into the production, it's Mantee's reflections that resonate the strongest. He discusses the significance of his role in very personal terms, and his sincerity and earnestness give us a wonderful peek into his psyche. Next up is “Destination: Mars,” a new 20-minute documentary exploring our fascination with the red planet. Victor Lundin wrote a song titled “Robinson Crusoe On Mars,” and a new music video for that song was created specifically for this DVD release. It runs just over 4-minutes, and is comprised solely of clips from the film. An entertaining theatrical trailer is included, running a fairly lengthy four minutes. “Under The Surface” is an extensive featurette that is a combination of sketches, illustrations, storyboards, behind-the-scenes stills, promotional artwork and much more that gives a unique look into the film’s elaborate creation process. Our final featurette, “Script Excerpts,” is an aptly titled DVD-ROM extra that allows you to read portions of Ib Melchoir’s original screenplay, which is markedly different from the final version. And lastly, the DVD comes with a 13-page booklet that is packed with even more features.

Criterion garners praise once again for their fantastic presentation of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. You know you’ve got a special DVD when even the cover art is magnificent. It’s the impeccable level of detail and care that helps to elevate Criterion into the upper most echelons of home video companies. Highly Recommended. (Matt Martell)