Overlooked and neglected, Saturn 3 has lots of good stuff
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.
It 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?
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.
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.
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.
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