Saturn 3 - In proud defence of an SF cult classic!
Sex and murder on a distant moon. Plus a terrifying robot. WhatÃ¢??s not to love?
Bizarrely derided at the time of its release (1980) and regularly scorned by all and sundry ever since, Stanley Donen’s star-powered SF thriller-chiller Saturn 3 has long been a favourite of mine. And it is not simply a case of guilty pleasure – I regard it is a damn fine genre offering with enough quirks and eccentricity to set it apart from the crowd. Famously troubled during its production, there was a tangible sense of the critics just waiting to pounce upon it. With celebrities actually showing up at Pinewood Studios to be seen on the Saturn 3 set during production the film was already being groomed to fail by eager tabloid journos. I saw it at the flicks – where in the UK it gained a staggeringly lenient A certificate, just like Jaws and Grizzly before it, meaning that kids could go and see it – and was instantly smitten with its weird tale of human and robotic intruders in a cosmic haven of hedonism.
I was already in love with Farrah Fawcett courtesy of Charlie’s Angels, and even at ten years of age was a veteran devotee of all things horror, SF and fantasy. I read the novelized tie-in written by Steve Gallagher and had a poster of Hector, the eight-foot tall robot that goes on the rampage in the once idyllic love-nest set up on Saturn’s third moon, Titan, plastered the length of my bedroom door. I devoured the facts and trivia and reviews in the likes of Starlog, Starburst and Fangoria – pre-internet, these magazines were the only way to learn about genre movies and became my life-blood for many years – and could never understand why the film fell so tragically by the wayside.a damn fine genre offering with enough quirks and eccentricity to set it apartIt is the distant future and Earth is running out of food. Two scientists live and work in an outpost on Tethys, named Saturn 3, and are researching hydroponic ways to provide new food sources for a hungry humanity. Kirk Douglas plays Adam, the older, more universe-weary Major who runs the operation alongside his colleague and lover Alex (Farrah Fawcett at the absolute zenith of her allure). The two have their own little nest of luxury in the compound, way out from the prying eyes of a mankind that Adam has grown to resent. Alex is a space-born and has never been to Mother Earth. All is beatific … and then their perfect existence is shattered with the arrival of murderously psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) and the huge cyborg, Hector, that he puts together with the intentions of taking over the operation and rendering Adam obsolete. Which would leave him with Alex.
Hector, the first in the Demigod series, has human brain matter fuelling his intelligence … but this is severely compromised when Benson inadvertently downloads his own thoughts and desires and neurosis into it, corrupting him. So now you have not only a deranged human monster in the compound but an eight feet tall, virtually indestructible machine as well. And they both have the hots for Alex. With Titan going into an eclipse period for 22 days, there is no chance of communicating with the space station and getting help when the proverbial mucky stuff hits the fan … and lust transforms into violence and death. Sex and murder on a distant moon. Plus a terrifying robot. What’s not to love?
Sitting on the precarious tightrope between the 70’s and the burgeoning 80’s, Donen’s outlandish high-concept saga was written by Martin Amis, a long-time fan of SF, and based on an initial story by esteemed production designer John Barry. Science Fiction was as huge as it has ever been. Star Wars, which Barry had worked on, had seen to that. But despite the darker Disney of The Black Hole, itself boasting a fearsome metallic aggressor in the blade-spinning Maximillian, failing to wow the crowds, and the less-than stratospheric reception that greeted Star Trek The Motion Picture, Alien had managed to prove that whilst in space no-one can hear you scream, everyone can still hear the ker-ching at the Box Office and, therefore, off-world adventures were a long way from being marooned where the sun don’t shine. Thus, Saturn 3 would bravely take up the baton from one decade and attempt to pass it to another.
Initially, Barry was assigned as the director of the film and was backed by Sir Lew Grade. But when the huge gamble of Raise The Titanic miserably backfired (the famous quote at the time was that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic), he found that his once impressive budget was drastically cut down. Nevertheless he persevered… for a while. Disagreements with how the film was supposed to look and the style that he was adopting led to Barry walking and returning to production design and 2nd Unit Direction on The Empire Strikes Back. So in came Stanley Donen, a highly unusual choice for a SF picture considering that he was a specialist in lavish and rambunctious musicals, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singin’ In The Rain! (Tragically, Barry contracted meningitis during the filming of the second Star Wars epic and died, aged just 44.)The film is gory and sexy, darkly amusing and often incredibly malevolent and sinisterOdd choice he may have been, but Donen picked up the pieces and actually handled the space opera with considerable gusto and lusty verve. There is incredible style and atmosphere generated. A vast spectrum of ideas bubble up. The film is gory and sexy, darkly amusing and often incredibly malevolent and sinister. Although suspenseful and visually very comic-book in tone, it also deals with some very adult and complex issues. Morality, sexuality, psychological deviance and the burden of ambition all combine to flavor a stew of both heady and heavy motivations. Partly, the film’s failure and subsequent dismissal by hordes of the ignorant is down to its recipe of sex and horror in something that was touted as being a more escapist sort of space romp. I already mentioned that in the UK it received a low certificate, and this could have ensured financial success… but would only prove to be its undoing.
Parents who took their kids to go and see the latest spirited slice of SF fluff were horrified at the sight of Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas both frolicking around in the nude, Douglas even grappling with Harvey Keitel whilst in the all-together, various bloody amputations and a spectacularly grisly opening murder, and a pervasive mood of sexual aggression and male enforced domination. Kids may have loved the shivers that the big killer robot gave them, but they were bemused by the queer story dynamic and probably mortified by the evisceration of the cute little dog that Farrah Fawcett’s character is so devoted to. I saw the film on its opening day at our local cinema, The Phoenix, with a full house, and I saw it every night (for nothing as well, natch) for a week after that, sitting in the dark auditorium of the two-screen fleapit with only a couple of mates for company. After the first night, hardly anybody else turned up for it! Not even the dads!This, of course, is how cult films are born.
Yet whilst things like Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, The Thing, Blade Runner, Day of the Dead, Streets of Fire and a whole plethora of other movies overlooked on their first release have gone on to gain critical approval and a devoted following, Saturn 3 is too often lumped in with the likes of Hawk The Slayer as being a prime example of a cinematic turkey and a demonstration of how not to make a movie, and has been routinely brushed aside for well over thirty years. Not fair, I cry, and totally unwarranted, your honour. So let’s redress the balance.
Pot-shots taken against the film are too numerous to list, but these are some of the main complaints. That it is derivative of many other genre films and stories, from Frankenstein and Forbidden Planet to 2001:A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Alien. Of course it is. The vast majority of genre films are derivative and often intentionally so and, as I shall point out, Saturn 3, itself, became quite an influence upon many others that followed in its wake. A mad robot on the loose is not original at all, but the way in which he operates and the tweaked sexual thrust of the overall confrontation trundles down a different path from much of the filmed SF that had come before. It plays as both homage to the classics of the genre, and as a knowing chunk of canny exploitation. And it also offers up some neatly provocative observations on the nature of obsession and desire.Often maligned but now is the time to redress the balance.That it is badly acted. Ahem, nope. Contrary to popular opinion, Kirk Douglas is not slumming-it at all. He actually loved the story and took a huge interest in the production, even performing all the stunts that insurance would allow him to. But this is the older Douglas trying to recapture the sense of freewheeling humour that his sailor-boy had in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that rascally old playful nature of devil-may-care bravado. There is a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step, and for a guy who was then in his mid-sixties, he was in terrific shape too. He had just come from doing the live-action Tex Avery pastiche Cactus Jack (aka Handsome Stranger) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which he had sent himself up with a hysterical gunslinger whose nefarious plans regularly land him in Wiley Coyote-like trouble.
This maverick attitude reflects deeply into Adam’s character as a long-term scientist who has found his paradise in the galactic back of beyond and probably cannot believe his luck to have someone like the star-babe of Alex for devoted company. The theme of his obsolescence in view of advancing technology and a younger replacement is quite thoughtfully done – obvious in many ways, subtle in others. We know that Alex is not going to desert him, she loves him too much, and she doesn’t understand the weird Earth culture of free sex and the lack of relationship commitments that Benson insists she adopt. Adam has fled from all that and founded his own veritable Eden with her where he thought they would never be disturbed. But regardless of whether or not they beat Benson and Hector, this conflict makes him realise that his time is drawing to an end. There may be a smirk on his face a lot of the time, but Douglas certainly allows a degree of poignancy to seep through that dimple. His wise-cracking finale is also amusingly downbeat and heroic, totally in-keeping with a character that has inevitably been revealed to be past his sell-by date.
Farrah Fawcett was going through a rather messy end to her marriage to Lee Majors and although she had just turned thirty-three at the time of the shoot, she looked incredibly innocent and naïve, as well as unbelievably hot. Douglas, himself, might have snapped at her during the production, over her initial reluctance to do the nude scenes, denouncing her as being merely a TV actress, but their onscreen chemistry does not seem as awkward, clumsy or forced as some snipers maintain. In fact, the age gap between the two is really not as preposterous as many make out. In some ways, this disparage is like the staple in older Hollywood pictures in which the leading man was regularly much, much older than his leading lady. And we shouldn’t forget that this was also the era of Roger Moore’s 007 regularly bedding women half his age.
So, rather than being an odd conceit, this only makes you care for them all the more. We know that their relationship, no matter how strong it is, is ultimately doomed. This fateful realisation makes an impact upon Adam that Douglas reveals in those Spartacus blue eyes. Initially Sean Connery was earmarked for the role, but he wouldn’t return to England to film it for tax reasons – allegedly. He would get his chance to battle it out on another celestial moon, of course, in the gem of Outland (which I have extensively covered already). I love Kirk Douglas in the role, but I would also love to have seen how a genuine James Bond would have handled it. Douglas is a fine physical actor though… and there is no problem believing him engaging in bedroom acrobatics, and fisticuffs with Benson and Hector.
Fawcett, admittedly, is hardly any great shakes in the acting department. But then I sincerely doubt that she was expected to be. She is there for glamour and sex appeal. Anything else she brings to the role is a bonus. I concede that she is scarcely credible as a galactic scientist, but then we don’t really care about that. When it comes down to it, Douglas isn’t very believable either. Then again, nobody was believable in Scott’s pretentious and hollow Prometheus, were they? But she does provide warmth and sensitivity and we definitely care about her, and her little dog, Sally. She is purely the damsel in distress, and since the genre is pretty much built on that single, driving hook, there is no problem with it.
Something that is pleasantly odd about her performance is that even though she doesn’t really do anything in terms of fighting back and defending herself like, say, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Sigourney Weaver in Alien, and she isn’t as sassy and revisionist as Jessica Lange in John Guillermin’s remake of King Kong, she doesn’t annoy like so many other vulnerable heroines from the films of the times. She doesn’t fall over at critical moments and she does have a personality as opposed to being simply a delectable chunk of set decoration, which no-one can deny she already is anyway. So this is a win-win scenario in my book. The older man and the attractive young woman residing in relative harmony on a far off world is obviously a parallel of the father and daughter, Morbius-Altaria relationship from Forbidden Planet, but this being the late seventies, the bond has obviously had to evolve into something else. Something a little more titillating.He brings a festering anger to Benson, and a fine level of arroganceAnd then there is Harvey Keitel, whose decidedly off-kilter performance lends Benson’s bizarre behaviour the dangerous edge that the character needs. Notoriously difficult to work with, Keitel had already made a name for himself for playing intense and dramatic characters in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Duellists and the strange British-German Western, Eagle’s Wing, opposite Martin Sheen. With his curious little ponytail (which makes him look like Midge Ure), immensely thoughtful eyes and abrupt and cold, matter-of-fact manners, you simply do not know what to expect from him next. Which is great. He brings a festering anger to Benson, and a fine level of arrogance… and yet if you look into his eyes and at his face, you can see that there is a dark sense of humour at work in him as well.
Now this isn’t Keitel trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all – he’s far too immersed in the character for that to happen – it is a reflection of Benson’s own depraved feelings of superiority over these two boffins from the boondocks. When he repeatedly asks Hector why he can’t, or won’t speak, his rising frustration is palpable. It is because the cyborg, his son, is rebelling against his authority. And when Hector accuses his creator of being a killer, Keitel allows a shiver of shock and guilt to ripple through, yet all the while you can see that Benson is still in awe of Hector’s growing intelligence, perhaps comprehending that he, too, is fated to be usurped by a new generation.
What aids Benson is his calm and mellifluous voice which, as many of you will already know, is not actually Keitel’s. Somewhat awkwardly, the actor refused to return for dialogue looping, so the voice we hear is that of Roy Dotrice, the father of Michelle Dotrice, long-suffering wife of Frank Spencer in the classic sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em. Some people have complained that the voice sticks out and doesn’t sound right. In fact, I would say the exact opposite is the truth. This is some of the best dubbing by another voice actor that had been seen in a film by this stage. Dotrice perfects a slight Transatlantic drawl that, to my ears, sounds just like Keitel for a lot of the time. When it becomes the voice of Hector, who adopts it later for the purposes of trickery, it takes on a sly and very seventies SF monotone menace. Obviously, when he is in control and ordering his human slaves about, there are parallels to the disquietingly soothing tones of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other sentient machines, but this is still very menacing, with the bleak sterility of unemotional logic.
Very interestingly, the role of Benson was first intended to go to Michael Caine, which just defies comprehension. It would have meant that he and Connery would conceivably have been reunited after The Man Who Would Be King, and a great double-act they would have made, I’m sure. But, as versatile as he can be, can you seriously imagine Michael Caine playing a space-psychotic trying to command a great big robot whilst salivating over Farrah Fawcett barely concealed attractions?
The story is often purported to be juvenile and illogical. Well, it has some issues, certainly. But nothing that is actually detrimental to the narrative thrust and the conflict that is brewing. Most SF films from this period tended to put some explanatory text up on the screen to give the audience a heads-up about the world they are entering, and it is refreshing to see that Saturn 3 doesn’t. It just sets us loose within a very unorthodox and even contradictory future society. John Barry probably wanted this “otherworldliness” to maintain our focus on the relationships between the characters, and Martin Amis, terraforming the screenplay in the wake of Barry’s exodus, only drops hints of the politics and social structure that has spewed out from Earth and attempted to colonise the Solar System. Thus, we don’t properly understand the mechanics of this universe. But I would suggest that this is a positive thing.
The human environment outside of Saturn 3 is abstract and left-field, and not so stereotypically black and white. Like the one in Logan’s Run, society has found a way to work with the emphasis seemingly on pleasure, although surely at great, and overlooked expense. Something may be wrong on Saturn 3, as the film’s tagline warns, but it is clearly wrong back home as well, on a fundamental level. Even when Alex makes that journey to Earth at the end, and she gazes longingly at its rather different, and far bluer vision than we are used to seeing it look from space, we have mixed feelings about what she will encounter there.Although she longs to breathe real air – an issue that would be addressed in Outland as well – the impression given is that she has left paradise far behind and that this will be a pale substitute in comparison. Or has Adam been painting a bigoted picture of the place all along to keep her by his side? Judging by the austere and yet uninhibited attitudes that seem to be the norm for mankind, and totally exemplified by the Captain, I would say not.a space-psychotic trying to command a great big robot whilst salivating over Farrah FawcettBenson’s unfathomable plans continually confound. That he is an egomaniac who wants to play God is unquestionable. But did he target the outpost on Titan specifically? He murders the guy who was supposed to fly away from the space station, and then heads to Tethys, or Saturn 3, with the parts of his robot, so clearly he was once integral to this mission. He hasn’t just cooked it up out of the blue. The soon-to-die Captain James (Douglas Lambert) actually mocks Benson for failing the medical tests which revealed that the astronaut has mental issues. But was James about to undertake the same mission, himself? When he taunts Benson he mentions that the oddball got Saturn 3 as though this is some sort of punishment for failing. But his spacecraft has been loaded with most of the bits and bobs of Hector already – except the brain, which needs to be personally carried and stowed-away. So was he taking the Demigod to some other outpost?
Well, we never find out. And certainly, Adam and Alex appear to have been expecting somebody to drop in because they are awaiting his craft. Steve Gallagher’s novelization clears all this up and makes it apparent that Benson has assumed James’ identity by nicking his suit and leaving his victim’s remains floating in space in his own flightsuit to throw investigators off the scent. The film is completely vague about all this. Benson even suggests that he should call Earth once he is settled on the third moon, though this would surely give the game away, unless he is only saying this because he knows communication will not be possible due to the eclipse. It is all very perplexing. Yet, for me, this confusion only adds to the general air of ambiguity that surrounds much of the story and instead of irking, I believe it throws one of many curve-balls our way that make the film and its tone appropriately “uncomfortable”. There is quite a radical notion of how humankind lives in this future.
Although the Earth may be depleted of natural resources, which is why there are outposts like the one on Titan, the promiscuousness and the drug-taking society that dominates it is like something from the sixties era of Flower Power and Free Love. It sounds like the sort of planet that Barbarella would land on. A license has to be obtained in order to have children. When a lot of seventies SF was taking the stance that civilization would be quite draconian and militaristic in the future, if it hadn’t been reduced to irradiated rubble and ashes that is, this was going in completely the opposite direction. Mother Earth might be in trouble but the population was having a good time. The Blue Dreamer drug that everyone seems fond of taking is a strange enough concept to be promoting. It is a combination of Ecstasy and LSD – hardly something that responsible space agencies would advise their pilots to take in order to help them through long flights, yet this is what they apparently advocate.
The notorious deleted scene showing the effect that one tablet cut in half has on both Adam and Alex is conclusive proof of a trajectory that is lawful but morally bankrupt. Its combination of hallucinogenic arousal and wish-fulfillment is something that makes the bogus memory implants of Total Recall seem completely redundant. But it clearly shows the addictive qualities that this little blue drug – Viagra, anyone? – has upon this evolved society. Benson is forever trying to get Alex to take one and even at the end, in the nicely poetic epilogue when the space-born super-babe heads off to Earth for the first time, the hostesses on the shuttle are blithely offering the passengers Blue Dreamers, exposing its effects as a standard way of life.
With his flamboyant, showboating background, Donen brings a very unique visual style to the film. You only have to look at the opening scenes on the space station as a troupe of technicians and engineers move about almost in silhouette with very rigid choreography upon a veritable stage as they prepare Captain James’ bubble-ship for take-off. It looks very strange and formal, almost like some rock-opera SF experiment and it remains an alienating, though distinctive introduction into this queer universe. These people, the astronauts included, wear rubber jumpsuits and cool motorcycle helmets which lends the imagery even more of a skewed appearance. This air of theatricality is not carried over into the more intimate and fluid majority of the rest of the film, but Donen and his DOP Billy Williams use the space and depth of the sets to great effect, the audience carried along with the action with smooth camerawork and luxurious compositions.With his flamboyant, showboating background, Donen brings a very unique visual style to the filmSomething that is not up for debate is that the set design is phenomenal. Partly inspired by Alien’s Nostromo, with lots of winding corridors for characters to run along and shadows for big nasties to lurk within, the film’s elaborate look also harks back to the more clinical and colourful aesthetic of the shiny and gleaming imagery from SF’s golden and silver eras. This isn’t the lived-in realism of Scott’s film, however, or Star Wars, although the Death Star had more than its fair share of polished and reflective, dust-free surfaces. It has more akin with the big screen Star Trek, although perhaps not as warm and fuzzy. With some of the chambers having a rocky element to them, the film also seems to inform Norman J. Warren’s sleazy British SF flick Inseminoid, which would come out a year later.
Taking advantage of two soundstages at Pinewood, the crew even opened-up the doors between them to create one vast area in which to house the Saturn 3 research outpost and its moon-surface and effecting what was then the biggest indoor film set in the world, even dwarfing those built for Bond. And it really makes a difference. Unlike in so many similarly set environments, we get the impression that the cast are really moving through a warren, the camera able to keep up with them through long tracking shots, and not that they are merely running around the same corners and down the same stretch of corridor over and over again. Thus, the sense of scale that can occasionally be let down by the model-work is more often than not very impressively evoked. Williams’ photography is quite dazzling, really capturing the dimensionality of the compound and perfectly establishing the domain as being a place of light and shadow, tranquility and horror. One very noticeable error is when Hector is luring Adam and Alex towards him and shutting the bulkhead doors behind them, hastening them onward, and during two long shots we can see that the pair are at a junction and the entire corridor they have just come down is open again.
I will also take some umbrage with the exterior shots of people in spacesuits moving about on the surface of Titan. Absolutely no attempt has been made to convey the sense that they are experiencing the gravity of another world, with the cast gadding-about as though they are parading down the promenade at Scarborough. Then again, this was also the problem with the spacewalking scenes in Silent Running. I don’t know what the conditions are like on the crusty surface of Saturn’s third moon, but some sort of effort to make progress seem a little more laborious would have been a bit more authentic, I feel sure.
Designed by Colin Chilvers and based upon Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Anatomical Man, and brought to life via a combination of man-in-a-metal-suit, animatronics and genuine robotics, Hector is inarguably the star of the show. Whilst Farrah Fawcett reigns supreme as one of the genre’s greatest sex symbols and frequently takes the breath away with her ultra-skimpy attire and quick flashes of flesh, the lumbering, demonic cyborg is the stuff of nightmares. With a metre-long cylinder of brain matter embedded in its chest and nutrients pumped into it so that its tubes resemble exo-veins that pulse with infernal energy, and colossal size, it is as awe-inspiring to behold as it is to inspire shudders. Its lack of a head is made up for with impressively titanic shoulders and the extendable photo-receptors that genuinely appear to scrutinize and to study, and to learn and desire. Insert shots of his metal fingers performing specific tasks like moving chess pieces around a board or grasping obstacles are well done and really do give the impression that Hector is dexterous and able. He may look clunky at first, but you don’t doubt his skills and manipulative judgement for a second once you have seen him in action.
Perhaps inevitably, other FX don’t fare so well. The Space 1999-style spacecraft and planet surfaces are all a bit obvious. Opticals like the superimposed explosion of the Benson’s shuttle can look even more fake than those seen in Blake’s 7. But with a crew that came over from Donner’s Superman, they are never less than enjoyable, just the same. Model-work and miniatures are happily augmented with front projection, and it is naturally very refreshing to see nothing but practical effects and no trace of anything digitally created. Chilvers has actually stated that he wouldn’t mind seeing the film remade with modern-day technology and whilst I would probably be first in line to see a reboot, or rebot if you like, it would surely lose a lot of its charm with its smorgasbord of in-camera dynamics replaced with feather-light CG. Hector is a tangible and intimidating presence. His heavy-footed gait and mostly slow progress are hugely reminiscent of bogeymen like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, and he has the same relentlessness, cunning and savagery.Hector is inarguably the star of the showThe Frankenstein connection is abundantly obvious, with Benson – hardly a sinister name, sadly – performing over-zealous experiments in robotic life and artificial intelligence very akin to the old Baron’s obsessive drive to create human life from dead tissue. That it all goes pear-shaped with the sins of the father corrupting the son was bound to happen. Seventies cinema had a lot of evil machines – the supercomputer in Colossus The Forbin Project, the ice-happy Box in Logan’s Run, Westworld’s rebellious androids, the amorous machine in Demon Seed, the giant robot that Tom Baker must battle in his first tenure as Doctor Who, plus the golden androids of death he would encounter later, and, of course, the mutinous Ash in Alien – but Hector is both a throwback to the ponderous and unstoppable monsters that came in the fifties and sixties and a concept that was proved to be ahead of its time.
The fact that he learns, and mimics and then assumes his own directive with a series of voice identities that he can fall back upon makes him a formidably cunning antagonist. Although we never really get to know what exact plans he has in store for the enslaved Adam and Alex, we understand that they are hardly savoury. He claims that he wants them to continue their research work … for now … but he implies that he will be sucking Adam’s brain dry of memories and personality in an effort to win the affections of Alex.
James Cameron ripped-off many stories and ideas when he sent The Terminator flashing back through time, and he cannot deny paying a lot of attention to how this particular cyborg went about his reign of terror. From his programmed relentlessness to his shiny, titanium look which is emulated by the Terminator’s combat chassis once shorn of the human skin that covers it, Hector is like a prototype for the Cyberdyne model. Even the mild disdain and curiosity that Hector shows towards the primitive little robot lab assistants is mimicked when the T800 observes the assembly-line automatons in the factory during the final face-off when he literally has had his face burned off to reveal his endo-skull. They both recognise the lineage. And Hector is not above using these little Red Dwarf-like scutters to help him regain his powers after an attempt has been made to dismantle him.
When Alex and Adam hide beneath the floor of the tunnels and Hector pursues them, snatching up metal plates and plunging his talons down after them, Cameron followed suit with the Alien Queen going after Newt in Aliens. Even the image of the xenomorph as seen from Newt’s perspective under the floor is almost identical to that of the two lovers cowering under the grill-work and observing the cyborg looking for them. And, to be honest, the Colonial Marines move stealthily through a complex of tunnels that look just like those of the Saturn 3 outpost, all-be-they in desperate need of a spring-clean.
The influences that Saturn 3 had on the genre are not limited to just Cameron’s magpie-like pilfering. Look at the “Direct Input” holes on the back of Benson’s neck and, later on, Adam’s as well, into which are inserted deep uploading and downloading spikes. The Wachowskis took this on board in The Matrix. Scenes of Farrah Fawcett jogging along the corridors with the camera speeding along beside or in front of her, accompanied by the hypnotic beat of her feet on the steel floors were lifted wholesale for the undersea version of The Thing - George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan, in which Amanda Pays is filmed exactly the same way doing exactly the same thing. When the two scientist lovers set a trap for the cyborg, using Alex as bait to lure the beast onto some flimsy steel floor-plates that it will fall through into the chemical effluent pit beneath, Hector realizes that something is up and stops to think it over. Then he carefully negotiates his way around the booby-trapped pit in a scene that perfectly foreshadows the Predator sussing out Dutch’s hidden spikes in Arnie’s intergalactic rumble in the jungle for John McTiernan.
Overlooked and neglected, Saturn 3 has lots of good stuff. Hector hauling Alex up in the air and holding her there by her wrists. The nudie scrap that Adam has with Benson – when Alex stops him from throttling the younger man by dragging on his hair, Adam gives her a strangely robotic glare of hideous intensity almost as though he has absorbed the single-minded determination to kill from Benson and Hector. The gradual build of Hector, himself, is full of foreboding … capped, of course, when he rebuilds and recharges himself when the humans’ backs are turned. The cyborg’s trickery and use of voice mimicking to throw off the approaching security team in space while the hapless fugitives listen in, unable to call for help. Donen, whose career didn’t really progress any further after making this, handles the stingers and the action with aplomb. Again, his command of dance routines and large ensembles probably aided his direction of the many confrontations and skirmishes. He even finds the time to give us a sublime shot of Farrah Fawcett, bathed in surreal blue, running in dreamy slow motion down a corridor in her nightie. It harks back to both Cocteau and Argento, and I wish he’d had the chance to devise more moments like this. Visually, I love the way that these corridors are outfitted with red and blue piping that Hector’s vein-like energy tubes copy. It means that when the renegade cyborg takes over the outpost, the place itself seems to be an extension of him.The gore may not be extreme, but it is still quite shockingWhen Benson picks up Sally and inspects the poor thing, Keitel apparently improvised the moment when he has a look up the dog’s bum! But as curious and amusing as this is, it always strikes me that he is reminded of the information port that he has drilled into the back of his own neck, which doesn’t look too dissimilar. When Alex quizzes him about whether or not he has had any dogs before, he brilliantly replies with “Yes, I’ve had a few. Just something to eat.” The screenplay is a little wayward at times, but it is peppered with snippets of the wider picture regarding this particular universe and its topsy-turvy attitude. Earth suffering from over-population and a food shortage is a rich mine that the genre has worked for decades, but I think that Saturn 3 is able to put a different slant on it.
Adam suggests, and only half in jest, that they should simply “flush the captain into space,” a proposition that horrifies Alex. Later, when Adam walks in to the lab and overhears the captain informing Alex that the Major is too old for her, and “yesterday”, Adam symbolically turns on the hose to pipe more effluent into the chemical pit, antagonistically “flushing”, as it were. When he beats the robot at chess, he proudly announces that the thing does not understand the concept of sacrifice in his strategy. Adam will be forced to perform an act of heroic self-sacrifice himself, in order to out-manouvre and defeat the cyborg when he plunges with it, and a high explosive charge into the effluent pit. And the orgasmic eruption that sends the cyborg skyward in a shower of chemical water and a welter of metallic body-parts is something of a bookend to the bloody explosion of Captain James at the start.
The gore may not be extreme, but it is still quite shocking. We may see the wire that lifts up the doomed Captain James when Benson opens the airlock, but the resulting shower of splattered body parts is an early eye-opener that certainly gets your attention. Peter Hyams would depict the explosive effect of decompression upon the human body in his wonderful space Western, Outland. But this guy gets violently dismembered when he hits the railings, adding an extra bit of painful oomph! Hector’s severing of Benson’s hand leaves the stump pumping out the claret all over that nice shiny metal floor as he drags the unconscious Captain away. We see the aftermath of little Sally getting twisted into furry chunks of bloody offal. And the sight of Benson’s wrenched-off head sitting atop Hector is a true jolter. But the most wince-worthy moment comes courtesy of some Lucio Fulci-inspired impromptu eye-surgery when Hector removes a live chip from Alex’s eye and Billy Williams performs some exquisitely nerve-jangling close-up photography of the cyborg’s pin-point accuracy on the reluctant patient’s eyeball. I mention the Italian king of grue because this sequence seems very definitely modeled upon the infamous splinter-in-the-eye of Olga Karlotos from Zombie Flesh Eaters which was doing the rounds the previous year to Saturn 3’s release and I would wager helped advise the staging of this sequence.
I’ve already reviewed the limited edition release from Intrada of Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent complete score, but it is certainly worth a little bit of analysis here.
The Oscar-winning Hollywood maestro saw Donen’s film as an avenue for experimentation, just as Jerry Goldsmith did with Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes and Scott’s Alien. Although a lot of material didn’t make it into the final cut (most notably the lush love-theme that would eventually form the fan-cherished Taarna’s Theme from the animated fantasy Heavy Metal), which jettisoned a number of scenes as well, and some of the cues are swallowed by sound effects, the film really benefits from Bernstein’s avant-garde approach.
Composing for and conducting a huge orchestra with extra bass and percussion, Bernstein combines the cosmic with the demonic. Elements of brassy violation sound very reminiscent to his awesome score to Zulu Dawn which came out the year before Saturn 3. An ominous male choir chant “Murder” in the background. Chimes peel out like a lament from a distant church. The music for Hector is fabulously creepy – an insistent beat of ever-building hellish fury. Sadly, there is some crazy disco music in here as well, something that innately dates the film and really doesn’t come across too well. But, if anything, these cues add what is probably a very necessary element of camp to something of a determinedly grim story.Flying in the face of a cruel smear-campaign, Saturn 3 is terrific entertainmentThe film limped out onto videocassette – I still have the amazingly huge and complex ITC plastic cased release on Betamax – and only seemed to gain a fan-base gradually after quite a number of years. Only a handful of people ever admit to liking it, but it deserves much better appreciation than that. The fantastic new Blu-ray region A release from Scream Factory is sure to help it gain something of a reappraisal, and perhaps win over some new disciples.
Flying in the face of a cruel smear-campaign, Saturn 3 is terrific entertainment. It is hardly an original concept, but it is a familiar tale told in an unusual way. The leads are perfectly fine in the grand scheme of things, with Keitel really standing-out as a severe head-case. Farrah Fawcett is absolutely stunning and profoundly sensual. Douglas is having a ball, and who can blame him? Hector is a fabulous creation and should justifiably be placed in the robotic hall of fame. Donen’s film is unfairly picked-on, I feel. Some critics are just toeing the party-line when they denounce it. Watching it again now, and for the first time in many years, I totally enjoyed it and not just because of the nostalgia factor. The quirks and eccentricities go in its favour meaning that what some people believe to be an erratic, compromised and unsatisfying story is actually a brave and unusually skewed SF take on the classical themes of love, jealousy and obsession. With a bloody big robot rapist thrown into the mix.
Saturn 3 is great fun that isn’t just poorly conceived schlock, and certainly NOT GUILTY of being the disaster that many reviewers would like you to believe. Case closed m'lud.
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