Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gravity and Robinson Crusoe on Mars: 4 Similarities

Gravity is a recent science fiction thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It was a financial smash and runaway critical success, garnering rave reviews across the board and seven Academy Awards. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a 1964 sci-fi adventure starring Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, relocating the action of the Daniel Defoe classic to the planet Mars.

Now I don't like to make unfair comparisons. After all, Gravity is a slick, big-budget movie with state-of-the-art special effects and two award-winning lead actors, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars is an 1960s movie with a cheesy title. What I mean to say is... Robinson Crusoe on Mars is way better.

Like, it's not even close.

Do you want inspirational schmaltz or a pet monkey? It's up to you.
Seriously though, I very much enjoyed Gravity in the theater. Though it occasionally got bogged down in sentimentality, there's a lot to like about Alfonso CuarĂ³n's space epic in my opinion. I thought Sandra Bullock was very respectable in the lead role, the CGI was detailed and pretty, the action sequences were pulse-pounding, and the 3D was surprisingly effective.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars, however, really does take the cake, and it's one of my favorite sci-fi movies ever. The atmosphere, the sense of isolation, the compelling search for oxygen and drinking water, the wonderfully realized Martian environments, Paul Mantee's solid performance, and the capable direction of Byron Haskin all add up to the perfect late-night viewing experience. It's a bonafide classic of the genre.

"So," you may be thinking, "two good science fiction movies exist. What's the big deal?"

Well, dear inquisitive reader, allow me to inform you. Upon revisiting these two films recently, I couldn't help but draw a few rather odd parallels between them. For example...

4. They're Both Space Survival Stories
This image sums up multiple nightmares I've had.
This one should be fairly obvious from even a cursory glance at IMDB. Sandra Bullock is separated from her space shuttle and must fight her way back to earth while trying to escape the cosmically big and scary vacuum of space. Paul Mantee crashes his spacecraft on Mars and must likewise fend off the inhospitable world he finds himself on.

Mind you, the broad similarity in story isn't all that strange or difficult to grasp (I believe the kids these days call it a "sub-genre" or something), but let's look deeper...

3. Scientific Accuracy

During the promotion for Gravity, much was made of the film's scientific accuracy: space is correctly depicted as silent, attention to detail was paid to the zero-gravity physics, and the sets and props in the movie garnered praise from real astronauts. The science wasn't perfect, of course, but it was treated much more seriously than in the average Hollywood blockbuster.

The following poster should illustrate how Robinson Crusoe on Mars was marketed:

That little "Scientifically Authentic" seal (which doesn't appear to be endorsed by anyone, thereby defeating the purpose of a seal of authenticity) was present on just about every poster, and it's plastered all over the trailer too. However, Mariner 4 wouldn't be launched until after the movie's release, so much less was known about Mars when the film was made. Therefore, its admirable mission for accuracy is understandably dated at times.

The angry red planet in the movie was portrayed as having a somewhat breathable atmosphere, and elements such as the alien invaders that appear later in the story do detract a little from the grit of the castaway tale. With that being said, the movie does carry a strong sense of verisimilitude and realism overall, and it's a refreshingly low-key take on the sci-fi genre, without bug-eyed monsters or merciless space emperors to be seen. The Martian landscapes look great (especially considering that the filmmakers didn't have pictures from the surface to base them on), and the attention to detail with regards to ecology, rocket physics, and the general survival aspect of the story is very good. The movie also gets a round of applause for using its setting extremely well. Mars isn't just an endless red desert. There are polar regions, deep caverns, and so on, and Paul Mantee's character explores these places, adding some great variety to the story.

2. Orbiting Space Junk of Doom!
"I hope this experience hasn't put you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to tra- OH, CRAP!"
The plot of Gravity is set in motion when a defunct Russian satellite orbiting the earth is destroyed and the resulting debris pummels the main characters' shuttle during a spacewalk. However, the danger isn't over yet, as it won't be long before the debris field fully orbits the earth and returns to menace the surviving crew again.

The Space Race is over, and we STILL blame the Russians for everything.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars's story is kicked off when an orbiting meteor forces a duo of astronauts to enter the Martian atmosphere and use up their remaining fuel. Throughout the film, we see this meteor flying through the sky as Paul Mantee's character wanders the lonely planet. This orbiting ball of fire finally has a payoff when it strikes the polar ice cap, putting our two heroes in jeopardy.

In other words, what goes around comes around, and, in this case, the "what" is terrifying star gubbins.

1. Dead Batman Hallucinations

One scene from Gravity that drew a certain amount of criticism for being trite and convenient was the moment when George Clooney's character Kowalski (dead at that point in the film) reappears to give comfort and instruction to Sandra Bullock when she's at the end of her rope. Yeah, it was silly, but that doesn't mean it was without precedent.

And here's where things get a little bit weird...

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Paul Mantee's character Kit Draper also lost a crew-member during his ordeal. This ill-fated astronaut McReady was played by none other than Adam West, before his rise to fame as Batman in the 1960s television series.

His second most famous role is that of Adam West.
At one point, Draper sets up camp inside a Martian cave. While sleeping there, he has a frightening dream in which his dead ship-mate appears to him, a silent and brain-dead husk. It's a chilling moment, one that really makes you empathize with and fear for the main character in his predicament.

It's also a very, very, very odd coincidence, because this means the Dark Knight rose from the dead to haunt the main characters in both Robinson Crusoe on Mars AND Gravity (Clooney, of course, donned the cape and cowl in the famously disastrous 1997 Batman and Robin).

That's the face of a man who wishes he was floating aimlessly in outer space.
The difference is that the hallucinatory appearance of McReady was used to show the depths of Draper's isolation and madness, whereas Kowalski's resurrection was used to tug at the ole' heartstrings and conveniently resolve a story issue.

Even if it's just a weird happenstance, the similarity is still incredibly fun to puzzle over, and it's enough to make me wonder if Robinson Crusoe on Mars had some direct influence on Gravity. Either way, they're both quite good films, and I really hope we get to see more gritty space adventures like them in theaters soon (it sure beats the torrential onslaught of remakes and sequels we've been enduring lately). And, if you've seen Gravity but never checked out or heard of Robinson Crusoe on Mars, hopefully I've piqued your interest. Please do see it. You won't be disappointed!

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