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Saturn 3 Soundtrack Review

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Elmer Bernstein's bold sci-fi score finally germs a release

by Chris McEneany Jan 14, 2008

  • Movies review


    Saturn 3 Soundtrack Review
    SRP: £15.99

    The Intro

    In 1980, Stanley Donen unleashed upon cinema-goers what he hoped would be a ghoulish galactic nightmare in a similar vein to Ridley Scott's Alien which, only released a scant twelve months before, was already considered a classic.

    Whilst most of the public and the critics seemed to blithely ignore his effort, many of those that saw it either yawned or laughed their way through his finalised vision. And, despite many other theatrical under-achievers garnering cult status on home video and something of a revered reputation down the line - Ridley's own Blade Runner, for one - Saturn 3 is still lampooned and ridiculed even today.
    So why, then, have I decided to cover its soundtrack? The answer is simple. Because not only is it a terrific body of suspenseful work, but it represents a truly audacious period of exciting experimentation for one of Hollywood's most American of composers - Elmer Bernstein. And, perhaps even more pertinently, because his wild score for the film has, until this release from the soundtrack-superheroes at Intrada, been virtually unheard by anyone outside of the Bernstein estate.

    The Background

    Despite many errors of judgement, director Stanley Donen's greatest mistake, and probably one that contributed hugely to the film's abject failure in the first place, was his removal of much of Bernstein's music - a decision that ruined the tempo and atmosphere of the film and practically destroyed its suspense and any emotional connection that the audience may have had for its overall story arc. But, as Intrada so often manage do to - look no further than their glorious Alien release (reviewed separately) - this wrong has now been corrected and Elmer Bernstein's incredible and riotous score is now available to hear in its entirety.

    Elmer Bernstein is best remembered for his rip-roaring, crowd-rousing western themes for The Magnificent Seven and True Grit, his exciting, catchy and playful title-tune for The Great Escape and his marvellous emotional and pure home-grown harmonies for To Kill A Mockingbird and Far From Heaven. But despite a hugely prolific and critically acclaimed career coining music for movies of all genres he is largely relegated in the public's mind to brash, crash fanfares and whimsical Americana. Which is a huge shame and a gross misunderstanding.

    Elmer Bernstein was also the creator of some very left-field, aggressive and boldly experimental works that, even to this day, go sadly neglected. His music for An American Werewolf In London was wild, frightening and intense, though only a scant portion of it was actually used in the film. Two of his cues for the film survive on Elmer Bernstein: The Essential Collection, and reveal a much darker acoustic heart than that which we hear in the finished film. His score for Douglas Hickox's Zulu Dawn (one of THE best and most ACCURATE depictions of a real-life battle yet committed to celluloid, and a firm favourite of mine - both score and film) is jarring, ominous, stimulating and riotously invigorating and represents a huge leap from the sound that audiences would normally associate with the composer.

    Saturn 3
    ...he had gone considerably against type and become defiantly experimental, mixing fanfares and tribal pulsations with incredibly complex action cues...

    For that 1979 picture he had gone considerably against type and become defiantly experimental, mixing Imperial fanfares and tribal pulsations with incredibly complex action cues... and he had evidently enjoyed the results, for his next project, Stanley Donen's troubled and misguided Saturn 3, would end up utilising much of the stabbing and devilish concoctions he had developed in Zulu Dawn, but use them to open doorways into other dimensions of sound and aural texture to fashion an impressive score that would be his most adventurous yet ... though, sadly, would also suffer the most cataclysmic editing yet.

    Saturn 3 was a train-wreck of a film. That's not MY opinion, mind you - because I grew up with it and loved it upon its original theatrical run enough to see it several nights on the trot - but the general consensus of critical and viewer opinion certainly seems to give it a major thumbs-down. An unbelievable Cert A at the time, considering its gore, nudity and overtly threatening atmosphere of madness, violence and sexual tension - which was like nectar to my then ten-year old cinematic-cravings - I still find much to enjoy in it even now, albeit of an incredibly kitsch standard, and the film has become something of a guilty pleasure.

    Written, bizarrely enough, by Martin (Yellow Dog) Amis and produced by ITC and Lord Grade after the box office sinking of their epic Raise The Titanic, Saturn 3 was a considered attempt to cash-in on the space-thriller vogue set in motion by Star Wars and, even more so, by Alien. Trapped in a warren-like scientific outpost on the titular moon, or Tethys if you prefer, Kirk Douglas and the then hotter-than-hot Farrah Fawcett live an idyllic life.

    Saturn 3
    This eight-foot tall monstrosity develops the same psychotic tendencies of its creator, as well as his lust for Fawcett's Alex.

    Until, that is, a murderous lunatic - and archetypal mad scientist - played by Harvey Keitel (one of Hollywood's established experts at portraying deviants and odd-balls) arrives to spoil the party, bringing with him an experimental, flat-pack-build-it-yourself robot called Hector. This eight-foot tall monstrosity develops the same psychotic tendencies of its creator, as well as his lust for Fawcett's naffly-acted Alex and, before long, the film becomes a vicious power-struggle that sees limbs and heads severed and lots of running around corridors from the clanking monstrosity.

    Bernstein's experience on Saturn 3 was much like Jerry Goldsmith's on Alien the year before, in that much of the score he worked so hard to accomplish ended up excised from the film, or altered and re-arranged. For almost the first hour of the, already short, movie there is practically no music, yet Bernstein had created enough music to fill the first two thirds with ease. The loss of his tremendously atmospheric and highly unusual orchestrations is keenly felt, with the film subsequently coming across as harshly unbalanced and bereft of the appropriate emotional connection that music instils in an audience.

    It is worth mentioning that the love theme Bernstein establishes for Saturn 3, and was largely unused, ended up becoming the theme for Taarna, the heroic warrior-woman from the animated sci-fi epic Heavy Metal. But you will hear its beautiful genesis here on this album.

    The Score

    Opening the score is what amounts to a nine-minute overture that, more or less, presents us with all the main themes and motifs that Bernstein will throw at us over the course of the album. Commencing with a loud and striking variation on the ominous and almost regal pomp of 2001: A Space Odyssey's “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, he develops the ethereal nature of the setting, the horror and dread of Hector, the soft and lamenting love theme for Alex and Adam (Kirk Douglas' character), and the wild sense of “out there” adventure. But, be warned, because Bernstein also throws in a complete wobbler quite near the start of this track that is as jarring as it is unwelcome.

    In 1980, the disco craze was still going strong and the composer seeks to add a funky boogie-beat to the mix that is, without doubt, the only element that dates this score. Admittedly brief, its inclusion here is like going from a John Barry James Bond score to a Bill Conti James Bond score, say OHMSS to For Your Eyes Only. However, whilst still a definite misjudgement (at least as far as I'm concerned, though Donen, it should be stated, also saw fit to remove it from the film), Bernstein actually takes the highly unusual approach of underscoring this Boney-M-style section with some ominous chanting from a male choir which does contrive to create a sinister musical hybrid indeed.

    Despite some melancholic work for flutes and clarinet, as well as soon early musical dread and unease woven into the proceedings during the next couple of tracks, Bernstein really begins his brilliant characterisation of Hector the robot with Track 4, The Brain. Percussive instruments and a glockenspiel bring the big bag of metal, tubes and wires to frightening life and the seed of what will become the album's most distinctive motif is sown with uneasy metallic expressions and a sense of momentous build-up.

    Saturn 3
    In 1980, the disco craze was still going strong and the composer seeks to add a funky boogie-beat to the mix...

    Track 5 sees the return of the disco pap and this time around it is not so atmospherically enhanced with mysterious chanting. The scene is of Alex and Adam tripping-out on “Blue Dreamer” pills that Keitel's nut-job has brought with him and, as such, is meant to be a period of R&R for the two characters. The dating element of this cue is unavoidable, though. But this is the last time that Bernstein will pull such a trick, as the rest of the score is decidedly more dramatic and orchestral.

    Track 6, perhaps in retaliation to this soft and bouncy interval, comes alive with serious pace and pure pounding dread. This is a standout cue, folks, that is so deliciously insistent, masculine and aggressive. Just play this cue and you can feel the approach of something large and dangerous and unstoppable behind you. Only short - not even a minute and a half - Hector Mimics Benson (the name adopted by Keitel's deranged character) becomes the main drive that will power the rest of the album with cold, implacable determination.

    But Bernstein goes even further with the next track , Peeping Toms. A rewardingly lengthy cue, this a real heart-stopper that contains chillingly evocative chiming bells, that brooding male choir, some sinister “breathing” effects and some gloriously atmospheric tinkling sounds and pure other-worldly ambience that are very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Cleverly, Bernstein alternates this powerful dread and its sense of approaching evil with some sweet, whimsical notes of playful Americana to represent the opposing forces at work in this predicament - Alex's and Adam's harmony in conflict with Kietel's and Hector's demonic discord. However, most of the track is fabulously dark and suspenseful, the composer fashioning an environment that is menacing and musically unstoppable.

    Saturn 3
    This is really incredible stuff, each cue seems to go through diverse instrumentation before being topped off with unearthly, almost Satanic gear changes.

    Track 8 brings in that irresistible Hector “stomp” again, backed this time by chanting and rising all the time to a strident finale. The next cue - Benson Is Off - unbelievably ups the pace yet again, starting with Hector's stomp, but much quicker now, and closer, more determined, before crashing cymbals and swirling woodwinds reach into a riff that is pure vintage Alexander Courage Star Trek - all high-speed shrill notes, the type of which would often be heard whenever something glowing and malevolent was seen approaching through the Enterprise's main view-screen. Stirringly grim stuff.

    A pounding beat and an electric guitar pace one another for Track 10's insistent first half, bringing with them a vague hint of a John Carpenter-esque metronomic pulse. Everything then gives way to a fantastic and terrifying step-up in speed and a disturbing clamour of piano-frenzy and heavy chanting before, ultimately, riding out on those chiming church bells amid an acoustic squall that threatens to engulf the listner. This is really incredible stuff, folks, each cue seems to go through so much diverse instrumentation before then being topped off with such unearthly, almost Satanic gear changes.

    Track 11 goes militaristic with a snare-drum until the bells chime once again, forming another strand of Hector's ominous musical character and then Track 12 - Hector Loses It - goes on the hunt with a cutely unnerving bassoon in an almost comical touch that sounds juvenile and simplistic until other instruments and a synthesiser take over and combine to create more of the robot's relentlessly driving rhythm. Breathing effects and a hauntingly melancholic phrase then mark a turning point and the track then folds into mysterioso and ticking-clock drama. The Run, Track 13, then extends this action motif with piccolo, chimes and xylophone before erupting into a snare-drum explosion of rapid-fire military excitement denoting frantic attempts to thwart the metal monster from its warped mission.

    Saturn 3
    A Head For Hector is aptly named considering the infamous atrocity that the robot commits upon its own maker...

    The next cue, a pivotal one entitled A Head For Hector (aptly named considering the infamous atrocity that the robot commits upon its own maker) is tense with dread as many of Bernstein's elements for the score come together - the bells, the chanting, Hector's metallic drive - with a string-led line denoting forlorn hope and an almost Western lick that feels somewhat out-of-place amidst the constant agitation, but adds a new frisson to the piece. Track 15 unravels with a simply gorgeous and tragic rendition of the love theme, later re-used for Heavy Metal's Taarna, but Track 16, The Big Dive, goes for broke, bringing back the opening bars of the score and some swirling glissandos to herald Adam's heroic and self-sacrificial last-ditch attempt to free Alex from Hector's reign of terror. Bernstein is turning full circle now and the score is falling back in on itself to bring a haunting symmetry to the composition that Track 17 - End Credits - makes implicit. The heavy brass fanfare that opened the score collides with and then loses out to the scintillating Taarna love theme, replete now with lush harps. The rousing climax, though, is swept aside in favour of the big booming brass section again.

    And so ends one of the most dynamic, aggressive and tense sci-fi scores of the seventies and eighties. The influence and approach that Elmer Bernstein took with Zulu Dawn shines through a lot of the tracks here, even down to individual sounds, musical effects and arrangements, major chord progressions and his exotic use of “stingers” to puncture the soundscope and raise tension. Zulu Dawn featured harsh, spikey, stabbing instances and a heart-snatching sense of ominous inevitability that Saturn 3 wholly employs, too. Yet, in his otherwise marvellous and comprehensive liner notes in the accompanying 16-page illustrated booklet, Jeff Bond makes no reference to it in his tremendously detailed track-by-track analysis.

    Still, his analysis is richly detailed and covers both the film and Bernstein's score without pulling any punches. The booklet also features a piece from Intrada's own exec, Douglass Fake, on the recording of the album and just how it all came to be. All in all, I heartily recommend this release. One of Intrada's Special Collection, Volume 36, it is limited to a pressing of 2500 copies.

    Track Listing is as follows:
    Space Murder (9.18)
    The Lab (2.05)
    Meet Hector (4.44)
    The Brain (2.08)
    Blue Dreamers (2.42)
    Hector Mimics Benson (1.25)
    Peeping Toms (7.15)
    Adam's Target (2.00)
    Benson Is Off (2.16)
    Training Hector (3.13)
    Adam Rescues Alex (2.39)
    Hector Loses It (6.52)
    The Run (1.48)
    A Head For Hector (3.31)
    Alex Alone (2.06)
    The Big Dive (4.37)
    End Credits (3.22)
    Total Running Time 62.48

    Saturn 3
    Elmer Bernstein's bold sci-fi experiment finally gets dusted down and revealed in all its dynamic and eclectic glory.

    The Verdict

    So, Elmer Bernstein's bold sci-fi experiment finally gets dusted down and revealed in all its dynamic and eclectic glory. Definitely one of the genre's curios, this is nevertheless a scintillating example of a composer pushing back his own boundaries to craft something entirely new and thrilling. Those wayward disco sections are a mistake, however, but not enough of one to detract from what is, on the whole, a furious, frightening, haunting and always intriguing composition of lush orchestra, ominous choir and electrifying synthesiser.

    Although a strictly limited release and available only from Intrada, on their website - or the likes of Ebay, of course - this is well worth seeking out. Bernstein fans should rejoice that his audacious and mould-breaking project has, at last, received the treatment it deserves, and film-score lovers should be aware that, without someone so richly established as Elmer Bernstein going against the grain and genre convention of sci-fi/fantasy scoring, some of the greatest examples of the form, from the likes of John Williams' atypical approach to War Of The Worlds and Howard Shore's incredibly diverse collections for the Rings Trilogy might never have happened in quite as brave and intelligent a fashion- Highly Recommended.