The beauty of this lies in Byron Haskin’s vision of the red planet as a transparent study of Death Valley, shot by Winton C. Hoch like rough sketches for Zabriskie Point. The stranded astronaut (Paul Mantee) thinks of himself as "a bit like Columbus" before the alien environment, with only a monkey for his companion as he sets out to rediscover and tame fire, air, water. Mars is a jagged wasteland bursting with fireballs, its caves are slanted with psychedelic crystals; sundry elements from the aurora borealis, the polar caps and even the Emerald City are incorporated into detailed images and taken in spaciously. Neo-Crusoe is tested in solitude, his own voice is no compensation ("Go to hell, Mr. Echo"), the dream in which he is visited by his late co-pilot (Adam West) is triggered by indigestion and concluded much like Buñuel ended his own version of island delirium, with a simple dolly out to a desolate wide shot. The marauding spaceships from Haskin’s The War of the Worlds make an appearance as strip-mining vessels, Friday (Victor Lundin) is a runaway slave decked out in pyramid-builder regalia -- their relationship illustrates how imperialism can survive even in outer space, though Friday is allowed to graduate from servant to comrade after saving Crusoe’s life during a storm of cereal flakes. Sprinkled with handmade ingenuity and laidback surrealism, this was largely dismissed as an outdated chunk of science fiction when it’s actually a prophetic fantasy that also serves as the crucial link between The Ten Commandments (the undulating flame in the grotto crevasse) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (the matted-in panoramas of interplanetary excavation). Audiences shrugged, but, as Herzog showed in The Wild Blue Yonder, at least one person understood it.
--- Fernando F. Croce