Color, 1964, 110m.
Directed by Byron Haskin
Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West
Criterion (Blu-Ray/DVD) (US R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The decision to adapt this bulletproof scenario to a sci-fi setting was originally the brainchild of writer Ib Melchior, the man behind such beloved drive-in chestnuts as The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the 7th Planet, who planned to direct as well. Instead it became the project of Byron Haskin, who had earlier helmed The War of the Worlds for Paramount. By the time this came out in '64, the playing field was changing thanks to stronger horror films and exploitation product, making this seem more like kiddie fare than it actually was. Fortunately the film still found enough of an audience over the years to build up a substantial cult following thanks to its intelligent, understated approach and striking, inventive visual design. The square-jawed Mantee (who mostly stuck to TV after this and became best known as the boss of Cagney & Lacey, though he also earned his cult stripes in The Manitou) carries the film almost entirely on his shoulders and ably navigates the lengthy nonverbal passages like a storybook hero come to life. The film made enough of an impression that it influenced sevearl sci-fi films in the ensuring decades (all the way from Moon and Enemy Mine to Capricorn One), and while the effects themselves range from beautifully artistic to not-quite-convincing oddiites (especially the step-printed alien ships), it's one of the decade's most memorable cosmic offerings.
Someone at Criterion must be a huge fan of this film, as they gave it the red carpet treatment as one of their most well-appointed laserdisc releases and then, after an agonizingly long wait, finally spiffed it up with an anamorphic upgrade for DVD and then an even more eye-popping Blu-Ray. Along with The Blob, Fiend without a Face, and Richard Gordon's fabulous Monsters and Madmen set, this is a great example of how well they can treat nostalgic genre product that might seem out of their repertoire at first glance. The real selling point here is the visuals, of course, and on this front the Blu-Ray comes through with flying colors. The surreal landscapes (often accomplished using the blazing blue desert skies as a natural sort of greenscreen) aren't the only beneficiaries, as many of the interior cave shots have a wildly colorful lighting scheme that anticipates the following year's even more insanely saturated Planet of the Vampires from Mario Bava. Audio is still original mono and sounds just fine, especially the uncompressed BD option. Extras for both versions are the same (apart from some script excerpts via DVD-Rom only on the DVD), with the biggest draw here being the audio commentary with Melchior, Mantee, Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, and historian and FX designer Robert Skotak, with archival excerpts from a '79 interview with the late Haskin integrated as well. Obviously the effects are the chief point of discussion here along with comparisons to War of the Worlds (whose Martian ships have an unexpected influence on this film in the third act). The 19-minute "Destination: Mars" featurette (which has nothing to do with the other sci-fi film of that name) compares the film to what is now known about the Red Planet (some accurate, some way off, of course), while a, ahem, "song" Lundin wrote about the film gets the music video treatment. Other extras include the theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills and storyboard/conceptual art, and a liner notes booklet containing an essay by space expert Michael Lennick, Melchior's dialect dictionary for the ultimately abandoned langage of the Yargorian characters, and his checklist of notes about the planet setting. Not qutie the collection of pulpy thrills you might expect from the title, this still-fascinating example of pre-2001 space travel on film still makes for essential viewing for space age film fans.