February 23, 2010

SATURN 3 (1980) - good-looking space thriller

(1980, UK)

Something is wrong with Saturn 3...

My Wednesday posts are becoming a regular spot for movies that I don't whole-heartedly recommend. This is a 'sick relative' of a movie - one I keep checking back to see if it's getting any better. This time around, I enjoyed it in widescreen, for the first time since seeing it in the cinema. It's still pretty bad, but entertainingly so, with the vague promise that it might have been warped, adult sci-fi horror... if only they'd done it right.

Released the year after Alien, Saturn 3 could be seen as a rip-off, with a robot instead of the monster, and a moon of Saturn instead of the spaceship. But John (Jonathan) Barry had written the story years earlier. Barry was more famous as the production designer of such design classics as Star Wars (wow), Superman - The Movie (gosh), and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (again, wow).

John Barry had also been a second unit director on The Empire Strikes Back (wow). Saturn 3 would have been Barry's chance to direct a movie by himself. He'd presumably been working on ideas for the design of the robot and the sets while preparing the script over the years.

According to news in Cinefantastique magazine (volume 9, issue 1), Barry only got to direct for the first day! There were rumours of problems between him and the cast. Kirk Douglas then directed for two further days, before Stanley Donen (Arabesque, Bedazzled) arrived to complete the film. Such drastic measures hint at problems that ultimately harmed this project so much, it was lucky to appear at all. There are clues throughout, not least the choppy narrative, with repeated fades to black, and the rushed ending. As it stands, the film is only half-formed. A half-interesting story based on solid sci-fi ideas, but mis-handled and poorly finished off.

A base on a frozen moon of Saturn has the ideal conditions for scientists to experiment on solving future Earth's problem of food shortage. Scientist Adam (Kirk Douglas) is assisted by the much younger Alex (the late Farrah Fawcett), living an idyllic existence away from the problems of an over-crowded Earth. Another scientist, Benson (Harvey Keitel), brings an experimental robot from Earth in order to speed up the research. What the inhabitants of Saturn 3 don't know is that he's an imposter, a psychopath who plans to psychically link himself to the huge robot...

The idea of untrustworthy robots is even older than 'Maria' from Metropolis (1927). Even the popular Robby the Robot went renegade in The Invisible Boy (1957), despite abiding by Asimov's law of robotics for his debut in Forbidden Planet (1956). In the cinema however, Asimov's laws are often reprogrammed with movie logic. I'd call them...

The Westworld laws of robotics
First law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Second law: if it looks evil, it is evil.

Third law: screw Asimov - if robots can't kill, you haven't got a story.
The unexpected fourth law: if a killer robot looks dead, it will suddenly come back to life.

The robot design, inspired by the anatomical drawings of Michelangelo, looks great from the neck down. But a weedy pair of plastic eyes on an anglepoise stand looks totally fragile. Generally the designwork, like Keitel's spacesuit and bug-like spaceship, still looks good.

What impressed me the most was the moonbase set! A huge practical (functioning) continuous set that seems to have had no expense spared. Again a production technique used in Alien where a labyrinth of solid and functional corridors, rooms and doors added to the realism of future space travel. For instance, Saturn 3's decontamination chamber looks fantastic and, in operation, appears to be a visually dazzling kaleidoscope.

The DVD restores the intense blue sidelights along the dark main corridors, an electric blue that was almost absent from the VHS release. But spectacular corridors shouldn't be the highlight of the film. They are a perfect example of 'sci-fi corridors', they're even in the poster (at top) - just a robot and a corridor. But while the robot looks silly and headless. The corridor looks good... I must mention this recent, inspirational article 'In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor' here in the Den of Geek.

Saturn 3 makes the mistake that so many other Star Wars-inspired casualties made - the opening shot is a spaceship flying over the camera. But much of the outer space modelwork is done on the cheap. The space station and the exterior shots of the moonbase are so small that there are focussing problems that instantly give away the models' actual size. Compared to the money lavished on the sets, the poor special effects indicate that the money got thin in post-production.

There are also hints that some scenes were reshot to tone down the violence. The opening murder is bizarrely devoid of blood. While much of the violence is quite nasty for a family-friendly classification, fast editing hint that it has been toned down. Some story points flash past so quickly, it's confusing. Also the sexual references around the tense love triangle, and Alex/Adam's spring/autumn relationship again seem intended for an adult audience, but toned down for a general release.

There are some famous publicity shots of Farrah Fawcett in a black outfit with a plunging neckline (glimpsed in the trailer below) - presumably for a fantasy dream sequence. I'm guessing that it would have followed the scene where Harvey Keitel's goes to sleep, high on 'blues'...

Further confusion stems from the seventies-hangover anachronisms - an Exercise Wheel (you will laugh when you see it, either at the brazen product placement, or the obvious uselessness of the product), a burst of space-disco, not to mention the casting of Farrah...

In the 'finished' film, there's so much left unexplained. The tanks of liquid under the floor. The surveillance cameras everywhere. The novelisation explains more about what's going on, adding a poignant slant to the epilogue. There's no mention of the dream sequence, but the opening murder scene is better explained. There's more dialogue and exposition and Keitel's stilted dialogue is different, far more natural in the novelisation, indicating that it got a late rewrite (credited to Martin Amis). Though the novel appears to have the same slim story structure as the film (for example, no dream).

Lastly the cast. Unlike the set, they're interesting for the wrong reasons. As Adam, Kirk Douglas is intent on showing us that he's still in good shape. He also gets nuder than Farrah and manages a long bout of skipping to prove himself to Alex, and to us. Just as in Holocaust 2000, there's a gratuitous naked arse shot, when the audience were presumably hoping to see more of Farrah.

As Alex, Farrah Fawcett-Majors had already dropped the 'Majors' at this point, waiting for a divorce from The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors. Her performance isn't much better than her stiff bit-part in Logan's Run, though her acting seriously improved over the next few films.

This is a truly bizarre role for Harvey Keitel, way weirder than when he turned up in Sister Act. The strangeness of his appearing in sci-fi is exaggerated by his character's weirdness. He picks up Farrah's pet dog and immediately checks out it's arse, supposedly demonstrating that Earth people are clinical and emotionless. This all veers towards the unintentionally funny. Plus the shock that Keitel's voice has been dubbed with the very British accent of Roy Dotrice (Tales From The Crypt, Amadeus, Swimming With Sharks). He's saddled with robotic, emotionless dialogue, like this futuristic chat-up line, "You have a great body. May I use it?"

The following year, Outland was the first worthy successor to Alien. A taut re-staging of High Noon on a moon of Jupiter, with Sean Connery as the space-sheriff! Great effects, characters and atmospheric direction from Peter Hyams made Outland a close visual and thematic relative. A gritty, gory thriller with sturdy, functional sets and hardware, from the same producer as Alien.

The region 2 DVD of Saturn 3 is widescreen, letterboxed 16:9, a substantial improvement over the cramped aspect of the VHS releases. Unfortunately, it's non-anamorphic and the audio is mono.

One of the few sensible reviews of the film is here on Moria.

A couple of shots from the missing footage, of Farrah in her dream-sequence Barbarella outfit, appear in this original release trailer on YouTube...

"There are four inhabitants on Saturn 3. One of them is not human". Let me see. Kirk, Farrah, Harvey... they could be talking about the dog!

Website devoted to Saturn 3 here...


  1. Great review, very detailed and informative! I remember seeing this one as a kid, but don't remember much of it save for the robot walking through the hallways. I remember the movie always cut back at some point to the robot walking through the hallways.

    Im dying to give this one a re-watch, thanks for the review Black HOle!

  2. Now here is a film whose visual style should have influenced more filmmakers. Loved the robot, highly original.

  3. Nice review, very thorough! I must look out for this one. Doesn't really fit in with Donen's usual stuff, but then he's always been susceptible to a good fad!

  4. Thanks for taking the time to add in all the background info. I learned several interesting things.