Saturn 3 (1980)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-02-21 02:01

Written by: Martin Amis (screenplay), John Barry (story)
Directed by: Stanley Donen
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“Yes, you have a great body. May I use it?"

Saturn 3 seems like the type of movie that wasn’t released so much as it just somehow managed to escape, as if someone found a half-formed idea (“hey, let’s do Alien but with a giant robot and Farrah Fawcett”) and attempted to nurture it before just giving up. Plagued by production difficulties that kept it from reaching its (obviously incredible) potential, the film staggered away half-formed but eager to befuddle anyone who came across it. I say that not because it’s one of those films that’s enjoyable in its batshit incoherence but because I can’t imagine anyone expressing anything but utter bewilderment at its very existence. Just how in the hell did this movie get made?

As it turns out, that’s a more interesting story than the movie itself, but we might as well start with the strange beast, which imagines a future where Earth has become overcrowded and humanity has struck out to other corners of the universe. Adam (Kirk Douglas), a disenchanted scientist who left Earth years earlier, has taken up a hermetic refuge on one of Saturn’s moons with Alex (Fawcett), a fellow scientist who’s spent her entire life in space. The duo’s idyllic existence of conducting agricultural experiments and frolicking in bed is sharply interrupted by an unexpected visit from Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), another ambitious scientist who intends to replace Adam and Alex with his latest android, a mechanical “demigod” named Hector. But, as automatons are wont to do, Hector rebels against his creator—but not before adopting Benson’s lust for Alex and going completely haywire.

I’m not sure what’s more surprising: that Saturn 3 exists or that it’s impossibly dull when it features this cast being terrorized by an oversized, horny robot. It has some hallmarks of Eurotrash, particularly in its lumbering to the psychosexual trashiness of the story and in the weird dub job applied to Keitel’s performance (I guess his distinct Brooklynese has been purged by future dialects). For a few fleeting moments, its opening scene even captures the loony, enigmatic quality of Eurotrash when Benson spits a fellow astronaut out of an airlock, leaving the poor bastard’s innards splattered all over the place as his murderer makes off with his shuttle. Usually, that’s the money shot in a movie like this, so, suffice to say, the film blows its load rather quickly and never recovers that fevered mixture of sex, violence, and incoherence that could make for good trash.

Instead, Saturn 3 settles for an unusually mannered, stuffy British sensibility (despite an American taking the helm—eventually). Granted, its deliberate pacing feels like a well-intentioned imitation of Alien’s slow burn, only it’s done with the clumsy plodding of an automaton. With such a sparse cast, we’re forced to spend time with the characters before the slashing begins, another decision that seems rather sound until you realize the film deals a trio of largely blank slates. Hints of some thematic undercarriage emerge in Adam’s dislike for Earth and Alex’s relative purity, and one almost expects some fucked-up riff on the Genesis story to develop, especially when Alex proposes that the two indulge in a drug that Benson has brought aboard. The hesitant Adam finally relents, and…well, the two just sort of keep frolicking. It’s fitting that even the drugs here seem to be downers and unable to induce any semblance of energy to the proceedings.

After indulging in this forbidden fruit, the film tosses aside any Biblical parallels in favor of some romping, stomping, and the occasional spattering of viscera during a belabored, draggy sequence that finds Douglas and Fawcett running and hiding from Hector. To its credit, the film arranges a wonderful cast and plops them into a beautifully designed production, which isn’t surprising considering Saturn 3 was set to be directed by highly-regarded designer John Barry (of A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars fame) before Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain, Funny Face) took the reins. As such, the space station itself feels fully formed and habitable, with sleek hallways and a cool laboratory full of weird, whirring shit. Hector himself is also awesome, like a beefed-up Erector set run amok, at least until he gruesomely merges with his creator, a melding that presents the most horrifying and memorable image the film has to offer, save for Douglas’s attempt to wrangle Keitel to the floor while in the buff.

Saturn 3 vaguely anticipates Prometheus in that it’s junk sci-fi masquerading as a well-dressed, polished piece of work coasting on the success of Alien. It doesn’t carry the pretense of Big Ideas and Questions that Scott’s pseudo-prequel did, but it’s a hollow grue-fest all the same. Again, the story behind Barry’s eventual stepping away from the project due to a myriad of issues is more intriguing and is chronicled by Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD release. Just how did a film with so much talent go off the rails? Well, let’s just say there’s an entire website dedicated to tackling that question, and its curator, Greg Moss, joins critic David Bradley on a commentary track to detail the particulars. Interviews with the film’s special effects man and the voice artist responsible for dubbing Keitel also illuminate matters. About twelve minutes of deleted and alternate television scenes, a trailer, and a stills gallery fill a fine release that’s just about as inexplicable as the film’s very existence. Of course, someone’s gotta show the film’s devotees some love; something might be wrong on Saturn 3, but you wouldn’t know it from this disc. Rent it!

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