Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe
Reviewed by Jeff DeLuzio
Rating: 1.5 Beans
hey made this thing in 1996, though it received no general release in North America and was seldom seen here until after "Castaway" and "Survivor" made their impact. Defoe appears in the title and in a framing sequence, but this film otherwise strays further from the source material than previous adaptations. This permits the filmmakers to attempt a number of potentially interesting twists on the original premise. The generally shoddy execution of those twists results in a film that has some passing entertainment value, but one that falls far below the price of the rental.
After Dafoe receives Crusoe's manuscript (the fictional narrative was, in fact, originally published as a "true story"), we meet Crusoe (Pierce Brosnan) in yet another framing device, this one involving a duel and a romance. Apparently a shipwreck isn't exciting enough. Finally, we get the ship, the storm, the wreck, and a very brief section that remains quite faithful to the source material.
Dafoe's novel focussed on Crusoe's lonely conflicts surviving in a strange and unsettled land. The film gives these aspects about as much attention as they received in "Gilligan's Island." A brief montage and a voiceover later, we have the Crusoe cottage up and running; he even scored some livestock (we never learn from where), and a modest farm is in operation.
The film instead chooses to focus on his relationship with a revisionist Friday (William Takaku).
Dafoe embraced the common beliefs of his time. His society regarded all dark-skinned, tropic-dwelling people as interchangeable savages in need of Christianity and Western Civilization. Such blatant racism has gone out of fashion, so this film replaces it with current beliefs: all men are brothers, all religions are equally true, and all dark-skinned peoples are victimized by light-skinned ones. The first has the greatest resonance. The developing friendship between the two men, while not particularly well-portrayed (Brosnan overacts shamelessly at times; Takaku is better as Friday), has dramatic potential. The second is beyond the scope of this review to discuss (it's an accurate statement if, for example, all religions are utterly false). It is amusing to see Crusoe's religious arrogance receive a comeuppance. The third notion tends to be as paternalistic and simplistic as traditional racist views. Crusoe gets to apologize for western racism and imperialism, as he and Friday encounter slave-hunters, presented as commonplace in the South Seas. Hey, there are palm trees and people with lots of melanin there, so it's all the same, right?*
Enlightenment aside, our Benetton Poster Boys spend more time battling old-fashioned, bone-through-the-nose cannibals. Their successful battle against hordes of these guys gives the film lots of action sequences, most of which are preposterous. Crusoe builds a small boat to escape; a storm cruelly takes it from him. There's no time to build a new one before the cannibals attack (for ritual reasons and plot convenience, this tribe only comes to the island on full moons), but somehow Crusoe and Friday find the time to construct elaborate, "Home Alone" style traps into which the invaders obligingly walk.
The ending features tragedy and triumph, though none of it is acted or directed well enough to make us care that much. The result is melodrama in a pretty locale (New Guinea). Fans of Pierce Brosnan or castaway stories might want to take a look, but I doubt many people would choose this one to take to a desert island.
*Notes: some slave-trade voyages were made by the English into the South Seas years before the time this movie is set, but they were unprofitable and unsuccessful, and the western slave trade focussed, infamously, on Africa. Of course, colonized lands (regardless of where they were or which people colonized them) often drew household slaves (or people whose condition amounted to slavery) from local populations.
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