The vast majority of survival movies owe at least a small debt to Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, one of the most widely-published books of all time. The basic foundation of the story – man gets stranded, survives dangerous encounters, lives to tell the tale – has been repeated countless times in films ranging from The Swiss Family Robinson to Cast Away to Gravity. The novel has been given direct adaptations on a number of occasions: a silent version in 1927, a female-centric version in 1954 (Miss Robinson Crusoe), a futuristic version in 1964 (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) a present-day version in 1966 (Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N.), a satirical version in 1975 (Man Friday)... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. So, what does the 1997 version of Robinson Crusoe have to add to the mix? Well... I guess it's the abbreviated version.
Of course, to call this Robinson Crusoe “the 1997 version” is a bit of an oversimplification. The film was actually shot in 1994, and was originally intended as a Hallmark Channel production. However, after star Pierce Brosnan was announced as the next James Bond, Miramax purchased the film with the intent of capitalizing on Mr. Brosnan's newfound stardom. Alas, the film never received a theatrical release in the U.S., churning up underwhelming box office returns in a handful of foreign markets before finally making it to American television in 2001. Essentially, it has all the external indications of an artistic disaster. The film itself isn't really that bad, but suffers from a rushed plot, an inconsistent tone and a wobbly central performance.
The film's version of the story departs considerably from the novel, but explains these alterations with a handy opening scene which reveals that we're actually watching a story pulled from the real-life diary Defoe used as the basis for his novel. In that sense, it precedes the likes of Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood in the way it presents a “real” version of a fictional story. To begin with, Crusoe (Brosnan) is not an Englishman but a Scotsman, and not a rebellious adventurer but a desperate fugitive. He kills a man in a duel over a woman named Mary McGregor (Polly Walker, Rome), and flees the country when he's accused of murder. Alas, the ship crashes, Crusoe gets stranded on an island and the whole survival saga is up and running by the fifteen-minute mark.
Initially, things play out as you expect: Crusoe discovers violent natives on the island, rescues a native prisoner (William Takaku, The Violent Earth) from his captors and dubs the prisoner “Friday.” It's here that the film gets kind of interesting, depicting Crusoe as a pompous ass with an unbearably annoying superiority complex. In Crusoe's mind, his whiteness, his western culture, his Christianity and his command of the English language make him superior to Friday in every way. However, almost every time he attempts to demonstrate his superiority, he ends up looking like a buffoon. It's during these scenes that Brosnan gets to put his underappreciated comic abilities to good use, and the movie approaches something resembling satirical bite.
Alas, the scenes are defanged by earnest narration from Crusoe assuring us that he now realizes how foolish his views were in those crazy days. As Crusoe gains something resembling decency, the film grows dull while simultaneously rushing through things at an unseemly pace. The character arcs move so quickly that they feel unconvincing, particularly by the time Crusoe is delivering syrupy speeches about how much Friday means to him. The film's third act is largely occupied by a blandly-staged action sequence, climaxing with a tragic moment that feels laughable rather than emotional due to the brusque editing and Brosnan's unpersuasive emoting.
Not every movie needs to be a sprawling epic – in fact, cinematic efficiency is underrated these days – but you can't help but feel that Robinson Crusoe is at least a half-hour too short. It feels like an abbreviated cut of a longer film, as if someone removed all of the little character beats, subplots and unnecessary bits of dialogue for the sake of squeezing the whole story into a two-hour TV timeslot that leaves plenty of room for commercials. But who knows? Perhaps a longer version would have been more intolerable given the inconsistent nature of Brosnan's performance and the unmistakable “'90s TV movie” direction. As it is, Robinson Crusoe is a briefly promising, mostly forgettable rush job of a flick.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 1997