Saturn 3


There are bad movies and there are tantalizingly bad movies, and Saturn 3 is the latter–the type of bad movie that tickles the imagination and demands an explanation. On first blush, there’s nothing unusual about it. Released in 1980, it was clearly trading on the post-Star Wars mania for sci-fi movies. The casting of Farrah Fawcett, at the time a big star, was a reasonable commercial gambit. And the release of Alien a year earlier certainly explained the idea of a monster movie set in space. If you look at the credits, you simply get a sense of older Hollywood types–director Stanley Donen, actor Kirk Douglas–striving to keep up with the prevailing trends.

But then you watch the movie, and you wonder: what the hell happened here?

The title refers to a research base on one of the moons of Saturn, where Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett) have been stationed for three years in an underground “experimental food research station” designed in Eden-green shades. Intruding on this unlikely paradise is Benson (Harvey Keitel), a visitor from Planet Earth carrying a mysterious canister. Benson’s there to help increase the efficiency of research at the station, but Adam perceives him, correctly, as a threat. What he gets wrong is the nature of that threat. Adam worries that Benson plans to have his way with Alex, whom he seems to regard as a kind of comfort woman, perhaps pushing Adam into retirement in the process. (“I’m close to abort time,” Adam frets.) The real problem is Hector the robot, which Benson assembles inside the station from the parts he brought with him (“The first in the Demigod series,” he says, ominously). Hector is quickly programmed through radio contact with Benson’s own brain. As Benson brings Hector up to speed, he unwittingly uploads his desire for Alex into the robot, along with some decidedly violent tendencies.

So far, so good. From moment to moment, Saturn 3 doesn’t seem like a terrible film. Donen’s direction is traditional but technically sharp: he uses a gracefully moving camera generally motivated by the action of the actors, plus dynamic frame compositions that emphasize three-dimensional space. Meaning the film is watchable even though he doesn’t get the genre particulars right, and the early scenes set aboard a huge spaceship have a stark, dramatic quality that recalls the graphic looks of Donen’s musicals. The first humans we see are a group of two dozen soldiers who appear in silhouette on a stage that comes complete with painted backdrop and footlights. Though the scene with a black-helmeted Benson hijacking the Saturn 3 assignment from a hapless colleague doesn’t make a lick of sense in context, it culminates in an image of death that has a grisly, dreamlike intensity.

There is a similarly bizarre quality to the story and characters, starting with Alex, whose assignment has isolated her in a sexual relationship with a man, presumably her superior, twice her age. The arrangement is apparently consensual but also a little creepy, especially given the contrast between Adam’s motormouth jabbering and Alex’s submissive demeanour. (Alex is the kind of single-mindedly sexy sci-fi femme made obsolete by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.) Then there’s Benson, the interloper, whose detached, incongruous line readings indicate that Keitel was instructed to deliver an explicitly robotic performance–until you realize that all of Keitel’s dialogue was looped in post by another actor entirely. (Dubbing over Keitel’s Brooklyn accent makes not much more sense than giving Fawcett a crew-cut would have–it scrubs one of his most recognizable and appealing qualities.) As for Hector himself, he’s designed in a humanoid form that suggests a hulking mountain of muscle with just a tiny little head on top–a horny, buff bully.

Much of the action is disappointingly perfunctory (no doubt owing in part to difficulties in working with the elaborate robotics on set that robbed time and attention from the rest of the film), although a scene where Benson holds Alex’s head still and asks Hector to clear a tiny piece of rock from her eye is expertly staged. The movie goes limp over the long haul, eventually collapsing into an endless series of shots of Adam and/or Alex running through the research station’s tunnels. Production design, featuring insectoid designs for spaceships and spacesuits, takes Saturn 3 a certain distance, though once repetition sets in, the low budget starts to look woefully inadequate.

Although the themes of sex, paradise, and hedonism seem intended to dovetail, the full sci-fi backstory is never revealed and nothing ever comes of Benson’s positing of himself as the sharpest corner of a love triangle. Passing references are made to a dystopia back on Earth, where abandoned neighbourhoods are referred to as “dead cells.” At one point, Benson offers Alex a pill called a Blue Dreamer. The drug appears to function as forbidden fruit in the metaphoric scheme of the script, but there’s no payoff to the idea of Benson as serpent. Instead, Benson is positioned as a psychopath whose deviant brain contaminates Hector’s AI, yet, aside from the early and seemingly unmotivated murder he commits, he’s really nothing more than a little unpleasant. His worst transgressions are mocking Adam’s age and stepping to his girl. Perhaps the Blue Dreamers are keeping him in line.

Regardless of the final result, there’s enough ambition in the script to make it clear that Saturn 3 wasn’t intended as the quick cash-in it resembles. On the contrary, production designer John Barry (A Clockwork OrangeStar Wars)–no relation to the composer–had toiled on the idea for years and planned to make his directorial debut with the film. The history of the project is complicated, but twenty-something British novelist Martin Amis was hired to write the screenplay, and when Fawcett came on board (thanks to the involvement of TV and movie mogul Lew Grade) it was given the green light. Barry only directed for a week or two before departing the production, leaving producer Donen to take the reins. (Barry died later that year while working on The Empire Strikes Back.) There are even reports that Douglas may have directed a few scenes. The final result is a collection of clichés that’s been worked and reworked by so many hands it’s hard to tell what’s ambition, what’s authorial eccentricity, and what’s just plain old ineptitude.

Saturn 3 has a reputation as an Alien imitator and, indeed, it looks like one, with the earlier film echoed in the design of the research station’s endless underground bowels, the Giger-esque biological styling of Hector’s robot frame, and even the way Hector communicates with Benson through words displayed on a glowing computer monitor (à la Mother on the Nostromo). The script predates Alien by years, however, and Ridley Scott’s film had yet to be released when production on Saturn 3 began in January of 1979. It is possible, of course, that Barry and his crew knew what Scott was up to at Shepperton Studios just a few months beforeSaturn 3 started shooting there, and that the production was influenced by it to some degree. But while the endlessly influential Alien pointed the way forward, Saturn 3 feels like more of a throwback, recalling such super sci-fi hits of the ’70s as Silent Running and Logan’s Run. The Elmer Bernstein score goes back farther still, referencing Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That’s not to say Saturn 3 hasn’t proven at least somewhat influential in its own right–Richard Stanley’s killer-robot cult film Hardware is a very effective knock-off. And it’s a home-video perennial, with new editions released every few years. Yes, science-fiction fans of a certain age (ahem) tend to happily slurp up even terrible movies they remember with some fondness from their post-Star Wars formative years. This one also remains of interest in part because it shows us something of the people who made it. Douglas’s jogging, rope-skipping, endlessly-mugging presence illuminates a one-time matinee idol’s anxiety over aging out of the spotlight, while Fawcett’s jumpy, passive performance speaks to her failure to gain the same sort of movie-star status. The unwieldy Hector himself is folly, albeit a creative folly. Built as a full-size material object, he’s a lot more memorable than your average CG heavy animated into VFX-heavy movies from the 2000s or 2010s will be. Why, finally, does a bad movie endure? In Saturn 3‘s case, it’s because of its human qualities.


In an audio commentary on the new Scream Factory Blu-ray Disc, reviewer and Saturn 3 devotee Gregory Moss discusses the production of Saturn 3 in great detail, with assistance from film writer David Bradley. The energy of this track flags a bit as the movie proceeds, which is understandable, and I’m not sure there’s much information here that’s not also detailed on Something Is Wrong on Saturn 3, Moss’s exhaustive making-of website. However you consume them, the behind-the-scenes stories, from John Barry’s intentions (he said he thought of it as a love story) to Martin Amis’s motivation for taking the script-writing job (apparently he was a sci-fi buff before becoming a novelist famous for literary social satire) to Kirk Douglas’s behaviour on set (Amis later said that Douglas “wanted to be naked,” and very much wanted Fawcett to be naked with him), are delicious.

Saturn 3 seems to have been a bear in the cutting room. On his website, Moss details a number of extended and additional scenes that surfaced only during U.S. network TV airings of the film, as well as an odd fantasy sequence that was to have taken place when Adam and Alex were under the influence of Benson’s happy pills. The scene was to have culminated in the imagined slaying of Benson by his hosts, but Moss says Lew Grade himself may have ordered its deletion due to his discomfort with the quantity of violence on the screen. Further, Moss claims that Fawcett demanded the rest of the scene be elided due to her own discomfort with the quantity of clothing on her body–a skimpy, Barbarella-style outfit that was key to Saturn 3‘s visual marketing internationally–and thus her space-siren get-up was trimmed from U.S. and U.K. release prints. It apparently survived in other parts of the world, and Scream Factory comes through big time, adding a high-quality version of the sequence, complete with Meco-grade disco music, to the extras. (The sound drops out at the end, and the violent business–perhaps never assembled in the first place–doesn’t appear here.)

Also on board for Saturn 3 completists are 10 minutes of excerpts from a crappy old VHS recording of the network-TV version of the film. It looks like hell, obviously, but it’s deinterlaced and upconverted to 1080p, and Scream Factory has resisted what must have been a near-overwhelming temptation to noise-reduce the remaining detail out of the image along with the crazy NTSC and VHS artifacts. They’ve done it exactly right.

The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer of Saturn 3 itself is par for the course for Scream Factory titles of this vintage, meaning it’s excellent. The picture is sharp and colourful, with rich reds and blues in the tunnels of the research complex, subtler and paler colours in the living quarters, and bright, saturated greens in the hydroponics. Contrast and dynamic range are generally commendable; although there is not much detail in the shadows, especially in scenes taking place in the lab’s dark growing room, that’s likely a feature of the original cinematography. The image is layered with natural-looking grain and marred by minimal dust, dirt, and scratches. There are occasional flickers and other imperfections owing to the condition of the source materials, but they’re not distracting. The sound is similarly very good, whether you choose the 5.1 or the 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA track. The former is presumably based on the original six-track mix for 70mm engagements and features lots of distinct separation effects, in addition to spreading the score out across all channels of the soundstage and giving some directionality to the dialogue, including trippy stereo effects that are meant to suggest reverb when someone shouts a line down in the tunnels. While it feels slightly busier compared to the tight mono version, A/B switching reveals a negligible difference in overall sound quality between the two.

In a new HD interview, special effects supervisor Colin Chilvers spends 16 minutes weighing in on the production, describing Stanley Donen’s approach to the material and his relationship with John Barry, the difficulties of working with the robot and executing miniature FX on a tight budget (“In those days, there was no such thing as a big-budget science-fiction movie,” he says), and even the age differential between Douglas and Fawcett. Who knew the climax of Saturn 3 was inspired by an Antonioni film? (Zabriskie Point, to be precise.) In another HD talking head, character actor Ray Dotrice gets six-and-a-half exceptionally charming minutes to talk about the experience of post-syncing Keitel’s dialogue. “I’ve always been a tremendous admirer of Harvey Keitel…so the idea of dubbing his performance seemed very odd to me,” he says, before volunteering that the filmmakers wanted a more “trans-Atlantic” accent for Benson. “I have no idea what that was about.” (Keitel himself was evidently unavailable for comment.)

An extensive if otherwise standard-issue photo gallery presents a variety of publicity stills and other promotional artifacts in fairly high quality. Among these are nifty posters from Poland, Japan, and elsewhere along with a priceless shot of Donen directing Fawcett in the scene where Hector pulls her off the ground by her arms. Finally, a three-minute trailer disingenuously plays up the robot-as-sexual-predator angle, and contains Fawcett’s Barbarella outfit in a quick, hilarious cut. It’s worth a viewing even if you think you’ve had enough of Saturn 3–it has a lot more juice than the actual movie.

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