(WARNING: SPOILERS) Generally dismissed as a post-Star Wars cash-in, Saturn 3 is best known for its unanimously negative reviews and a psychopathic robot with a fancy for Farrah Fawcett’s fanny (with due credit to Time-Out’s review for that alliterative turn of phrase). To males of a certain age, this predilection was entirely understandable… It’s undoubtedly a mess off a film, visibly wearing the evidence of its troubled production. But it remains a curiosity rather than the complete write-off its reputation suggests (there is even a dedicated website, illustrating that, for some, it captured the imagination of what might have been, rather than merely what is).
The basics of the plot provide for a fairly economic, claustrophobic thriller, with only four characters (and three actors) facing off within a confined setting. Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) kills the colleague who is due to replace him on a mission to the titular moon. The only inhabitants are Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett), who are running a hydroponics research station. Benson proceeds with the official plan to replace one of the crew with a new prototype robot (Hector, first of the “Demigod” series). The robot acquires its learning through a direct link to the brain of its “programmer”, but in this case it takes on less-than savoury qualities including murderous impulses and lusting after Alex (Benson was taken off the mission after he failed psychological tests assessing his suitability for this role).
There are suggestions of a harsher, at very least philosophically totalitarian, society that Douglas and Fawcett’s scientists are sheltering from. Much of the more strained dialogue relates to “future speak”, in which there is clearly an emphasis on logical and order rather than emotional responses (such that the monogamous relationship between Adam and Alex is considered criminal on Earth); Benson’s, “You have a great body. May I use it?” is one of the film’s most mocked lines. Assignations of role and function appear to be centralised, and all people are bar coded on their faces. It’s made quite clear that this emphasis on order and control has not benefited humanity, as Benson is shown to be murderously psychotic. Additionally, in a touch that is no doubt all Amis, dependence on artificial chemical stimulation is accepted behaviour (the “Blue Dreamers”, pills that Adam and Alex take at one point).
The problem is that there isn’t enough feel of an integrated future here, so it translates to screen as a stereotypically pulpy one, ripping-off tropes right left and centre but unable to construct something distinctive with them. There are strong echoes of Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running in the premise of ecologically minded individuals who separate themselves from an uncaring, unyielding dystopian Earth (and who are mocked for being out of touch). This is true even down to the monastic gowns the lead characters are seen wearing at points. But Saturn 3 lacks the thematic unity of Trumbull’s film, and Donen has little sense of the story he wishes to tell other than as a futuristic iteration of Frankenstein’s monster. There’s a clumsiness on display that might have been avoided if there was greater familiarity with the genre. Calling a character Adam, when he lives in a “paradise” with his bountiful Eve and have a serpent come into their midst, is a little on-the-nose; Benson even brings an “apple” which the Adam and Alex consume. One could imagine the bare bones of plot nourished considerably by a director with a more pervasive sensibility; Nic Roeg or Donald Cammell, perhaps (the latter’s Demon Seed explored a similar theme of a sex-mad machine gone rogue, and was most definitely an example of a potentially risible premise being considerably enhanced by the flair of its director.
In this case, director Stanley Donen, best known for musicals, does a competent job but doesn’t have much feel for the material. Apparently the script, ostensibly by Martin Amis, went through numerous unofficial rewrites to the point where he can hardly be blamed for some of the more credibility-stretching dialogue and scenarios.
It might have turned out differently had original director John Barry remained attached. No, not the film composer, but the production designer and some-time second unit director (in the former capacity he had worked on films including A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars and Superman (on which he also directed second unit). He worked with Donen on Lucky Lady in 1975, and brought his idea for Saturn 3 to him at that time (so, in conception at least, this predates the sci-fi boom). It was Donen who suggested both Amis and, ironically, that Barry direct.
Things didn’t go well for Barry, for whatever reason. Donen claimed it was down to inexperience working on the set, although others have disputed this. Douglas throwing his weight about appears to have been a factor, but most likely what was seized upon was that the schedule fell behind due to the time-consuming robot effects. An area that did not run any smoother when Donen assumed the reins. Sadly, Barry died not long after exiting the film. He moved on to The Empire Strikes Back as Second Unit Director and succumbed to meningitis a couple of weeks later, at only 43.
One might murmur that the film was doomed from the start, being a Lew Grade ITC production. This was the time of his disastrous production of Raise the Titanic (which reportedly crippled Saturn 3’s effects budget as fall-out from its spiraling-out of control costs) and the soon-to-follow Legend of the Lone Ranger. Grade reportedly offered Fawcett the role on a whim, meeting her on a flight. With the success of Charlie’s Angels, she was arguably ideally cast as the older man’s lust object. It’s notable that much of the publicity centred on Fawcett wearing a Barbarella-esque fantasy outfit (that featured in one of the film’s deleted scenes, and bore little relation to the content and tone of the production). As such, Fawcett’s fine if insubstantial; it goes without saying that most male viewers will remember the film for the brief appearance of her breasts rather than her performance. And, of course, every opportunity to show her in her skimpies has been duly taken.
The scattershot approach to casting went on. Unable to bag Connery (or Caine), Kirk Douglas appears to be more age-appropriate to the role. More than twice Fawcett’s years (and looking it, although there’s no denying that he seems capably limber in all the action scenes – his knees appear quite able to bear crouching about under floors), Douglas sells the side of the character that is threatened by the (as Alex puts it) cuckoo in the nest. It never feels that this is other than an old man worried that his luck with a young woman is soon going to run out (including some choice dialogue on the subject). But his performance is untempered. For much of the time he seems to think he is in a broader film, making Adam “large” when more reserve would have been appropriate. Douglas was reportedly a right pain, and Amis referred to his obsession with being naked as specifically relating to his advancing years. It would certainly explain the scene where, in the buff, he grapples with Keitel; anyone searching for a fix of sexagenarian flesh need look no further. And I find it difficult to believe that the moment where Kirk slaps Fawcett’s arse was planned, certainly by her.
As characters go, Adam is old and worried that he is losing it. That’s about it. Douglas fails to sell his rejection of Benson (“Let the robot have him!”) or his recovery of his convictions (“I can’t do it!”), but to be fair Adam hasn’t seen nearly enough reason to justify leaving him to die at this point (unless it’s in a deleted scene). He also gets saddled with deductive leaps (“He doesn’t want to kill us!”) that are hard to fathom.
Then there’s Keitel. Looking relatively fresh-faced and sounding… different. That’s because Roy Dotrice dubbed him, for reasons unverified (these vary from refusal to show up to post-synch his dialogue to Lew Grade’s dislike of his New York vowels). This is one of the aspects of the film that is mercilessly mocked, as if is conclusive evidence of how shit it is. Except, I think Dotrice’s level tonelessness works for the character. Benson sounds detached, strange and disturbed; which is surely exactly as he should be.
Where even the harshest critics have to show respect is in the quality of the design work. The sets, which consumed much of Shepperton Studios, are magnificent and labyrinthine. Production designer Stuart Craig went on to work on all the Harry Potter films. It should be remembered that Saturn 3 was in production before Alien came out, so it’s dark moody sets could not be seen as mimicry. Indeed, there’s a bridge here between the more traditional “clean” look of pre-Star Wars SF and the overt used-future post-Alien (for the latter, see the following year’s Outland). There is even reason to suggest that it was influential; one cannot watch Adam and Alex evading Hector under the flooring and not think of Aliens.
The costume designs vary in quality; Keitel’s green-tubed suit is great, whereas Adam and Alex’s spacesuits are very classically sci-fi. And Douglas’ leisurewear and turtlenecks are just taking the piss. Apparently this is a future where overpopulation is rife, starvation is an issue and people eat dogs. Yet the population still seems to be able to afford fetching leather trousers.
Nevertheless, kudos to the anti-Star Wars approach in creating Hector. Elsewhere movies were amping up the anthropomorphism of mechanical men (The Black Hole). Saturn 3 goes in the opposite direction. Hector doesn’t even have a head, just an ever-inquiring eyestalk. The imposing design is ungainly yet arresting, even if it’s difficult to believe that stealth pursuit would be possible with such a great clanking hulk (“He just vanished!”); it was reportedly a very expensive prop and consumed a significant portion of the budget (more than a tenth, apparently). Where Saturn 3 resoundingly falls short is in the cheap model work; most egregious are the bargain basement travelling through Saturn’s rings effects (this is where the claims that Grade cut funding come into play). The opening shot is a poor-man’s rip-off of the corresponding shot in Star Wars too.
It’s possible that the original version of the film flowed better, and was more thematically coherent than what ended up on screen; fifteen minutes were excised (this version was shown on TV in the ‘80s, and part of the Blue Dreamers scene can be seen – in German – on youtube). Certainly, some of the more “adult” ideas might have added much-needed texture. The extended Blue Dreamers sequence is nothing short of a loved-up Ecstasy romp for Adam and Alex, although the even longer version apparently includes a fantasy of Adam murdering Benson which is suggestive of more nightmarish, Manson-seque Acid possibilities (it makes more sense that a psycho like Benson wouldn’t be happy with relentlessly upbeat Ecstasy experiences).
The best scenes of the available version relate to the interaction between Benson and the increasingly insolent Hector. The idea of a robot brain grown from foetal tissue is arresting and a believable one, and Hector’s usurping of his master (“I am not malfunctioning you are”) works extremely well. The uploading link into the base of the brain is a neat touch too. What we don’t get is any insight into either character, Frankenstein or his monster. You have to really pay attention in the first couple of minutes to pick up on Benson’s involvement in the mission (the erratic editing doesn’t help). It seems all we really need to know is that Benson is bad because he is mad. Of Benson’s behaviour, while the 22-day “shadowlock” communications isolation of the station is a solid conceit, it’s less believable that no one aboard the ship seen at the beginning would have registered the disintegration of one of its crew (and clearly they haven’t, three weeks later); murder is easy in the future.
Meanwhile, Hector’s attentions toward Alex provoke only fear not sympathy. The potential for developing him at a late stage is squandered; he inserts an upload link into Adam, but the characters do not take the opportunity to trade philosophies. This is a rudimentary megalomaniacal machine. There are enough production stills about to show significant scenes with Hector that might have added a bit of roundedness to him (the one I always remember at the time is Douglas in a spacesuit, grappling with the robot), but I’m unconvinced that they’d have sustained the film better.
Part of the reason is that the pacing is off; there are longueurs of characters doing very little that would only work if there was deliberate method behind them. Donen fails on a number of important levels; he never cements a strong geography to the base, and is unable to establish a pervasive atmosphere of unease. Once the theme of voyeurism has been established it should intrude on every scene, but he eases off repeatedly. At times, his staging is impressive and you can see his musical background (the rocket-port set at the opening, all long shots with extras in silhouette). He knows where to put the camera, but he doesn’t care for the material. The presence of gore is uneasy too; there was more in the original version, allegedly cut at Grade’s insistence (including the dissection of Benson by Hector). With one exception (the reveal of Hector with Benson’s face attached) it seems gratuitous, and much like the nudity lends the film the air of a B-movie cash-in that stoops to whatever level it needs to for impact.
The atmosphere that is present is mostly down to Elmer Bernstein’s score (again, apparently much of it was omitted when the film was recut). It includes a few silly motifs of the era (and there is a snatch of some really ropey disco during the Blue Dreamers scene) but in general it is ominous and unsettling in all the right ways. There is even a track where “Murder” is wailed over shots of Hector up to no good.
There is something about the varied array of early-‘80s science fiction, riding on the coat tails of Star Wars, that makes it fun to rediscover. Some of it is really terrible, some of it is great. Some of it, like Saturn 3, has the kernel of a strong idea (rather than being a shameless rip-off) but is botched in execution. As a result, it will always be best known for its stunt casting and Farrah-frenzied robot than for its less obvious merits.