One good Saturn deserves another. They took 3.
Welcome back to Sci-Fi Saturdays! This week the series enters the 1980s with the first major release of the decade, Saturn 3–a sci-fi/horror film starring Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett.
Three people living on the remote outpost of Saturn 3 are caught in a total black out due to a solar eclipse. Unfortunately the fourth member of the outpost is a killer robot. The trailer highlights a number of impressive special effects shots, one apparently ripped right from the opening of Star Wars, and showcases Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas in a sci-fi thriller. Can the film deliver?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
A large space vessel approaches the Saturn 3 Experimental Food Research Station, where Captain James is due to visit. However, as he preps he is killed by Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), who takes his place. Benson was dropped from the original mission when he received a poor psych-eval as potentially unstable. He boards the shuttle with a mysterious canister and flies to the remote facility where he is met by the two lone inhabitants, Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his partner/assistant Alex (Farrah Fawcett).
Benson is immediately attracted to Alex and propositions her to sleep with him, but she turns him down. Adam reminds him that he cannot contact Earth for 22 days while they are in eclipse, which Benson feigns forgetting, since Adam assumes him to be James. That evening Benson spies on Adam and Alex making love. The next day Benson begins setting up the robot being tested at the facility, a new “Demigod series” model which uses actual human brain tissue grown from fetuses and “programmed” with a neural link to Benson.
After a lengthy build sequence, Benson plugs a cable into a jack in the back of his neck, bringing “Hector,” as he calls the robot, online. Hector will eventually replace one of the two scientists. Benson suggests Adam since he’s close to “abort time.” During calibration of Hector’s tools, his laser drill vaporizes a chunk of rock, spraying a piece into Alex’s eye. Benson has Hector pick it out with his sharp, clawed “fingers.” Benson again tells Alex that Adam is “yesterday” and she should really hook up with him.
Later Hector kills Alex’s dog Sally in the greenhouse, having picked up some of Benson’s psychotic behavior. When Alex comes to investigate, Hector attacks her as well, grabbing her wrists with its claws and lifting her off the ground, but stops when she asks him too, also infatuated with the female. Adam and Benson stop Hector and dismantle it. Believing Hector to no longer be a threat, Adam orders Benson to leave as soon as the eclipse is over. Unfortunately, Hector is able to still communicate with its parts, even after being dismantled, and gets the station’s service droids to help repair itself.
Frustrated that Major Adam continues telling him what to do, Benson downs a handful of colorful pills, and grabs Alex, demanding she come with him. Adam fights off Benson, nearly strangling him, but Benson gets the upper hand and hits Adam on the head with a pipe, dragging Alex behind him. Hector, now fully functional, attacks Benson, cutting off his hand, and eventually killing him. Adam and Alex attempt to make their way back to the shuttle, but Hector destroys it remotely. They are able to knock Hector into a coolant pool which appears to stop the killer robot.
Again, Hector survives and using its advanced programming mimics Benson’s voice, going so far as to mount Benson’s decapitated head onto its shoulders. Captured, Adam awakens some time later with a port on his neck. A passing ship checks in with the base and Hector impersonates Alex and Adam, claiming they are all okay. Hector puts them both to work, sharing a strange fascination for Alex–just as Benson had. Adam secrets some explosives on his body, and when he has the chance he tackles Hector back into the coolant pool, blowing them both up. The film ends with Alex on a spacecraft heading for Earth, which she has never seen in person.
“He’s breathed. I mean we lead a shut life here. It must be really something to go outside and breathe.” – Alex
History in the Making
Welcome to the 80s and Saturn 3. This film might actually have been better served being part of last month’s 31 Days of Horror series. Unlike many of the films I looked at, it’s more of a science-fiction film with horror elements, rather than a horror film with some sci-fi elements. This was to be the directorial debut of production designer and art director John Barry. Barry, who was known for his work on A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, and Superman, was originally hired due to the use of his story. Producer Stanley Donen thought it would be good for him to articulate his vision and placed him in the director’s chair, even though Barry had rarely worked on sets and had no experience directing a film. Reportedly he directed some of the film.
Donen, who was famous in the Hollywood musical genre for films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, and Singing in the Rain, took over directing at some point and is the credited director on the project. It’s unclear which parts of the film belonged to whom, but that’s really the least of the problems with the film. Between the plot, the pacing, and the acting, Saturn 3 is really a drag. The cinematography, set design, and special effects all make for a beautiful looking film. But even the most beautiful film in the world won’t be watched if it’s not interesting.
Saturn 3 proves a good point in the post-Star Wars world of sci-fi film. Just because a film has all the elements of a good sci-fi film does not automatically make it good. Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at about 15 films that were released after Star Wars, and about half of those were trying to capitalize on the success of the George Lucas movie in some way. Saturn 3 goes even further and within the first five minutes of the film, ripping off three of the best known sci-fi films ever.
The movie opens with the credits, sans music. When it comes time to show the film title, the parts of the letters appear, piece by piece just as with the horror film Alien. Then there is a space shot of Saturn with a gigantic spaceship appearing at the top of the frame, entering slowly–just like the Star Destroyer from A New Hope. And at this point the orchestrated music has a distinctive cadence much like Also sprach Zarathustra, the main theme for Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film also has a distinctive horror vibe of Alien as well. Cramped corridors, a killer robot (which also doubles for the H.R. Giger alien), and lots of running around the space station with no way to get off. Additionally there’s also an element of the Frankenstein story here as well, which riffs off the mad creator using a “bad brain“ in his creation which in turn kills him.
Saturn 3 looks like a sci-fi film. It feels like a sci-fi film. But in this case, it’s only an artifice created by filmmakers that reproduce what they saw others doing. As a sci-fi film it doesn’t offer anything wonderful or amazing. The information about this future is limiting, with much of the film blatantly setting up the next plot point. It opens with Captain James making fun of Benson for failing his psych test, just before Benson vents him into space. Purely setting up the psychotic nature of the character, which is telegraphed to the audience numerous times as Benson configures Hector, and Hector asks about the murder. As a horror film it doesn’t really pull off any scares either. It just makes Harvey Keitel’s character seem like a horrible person with no other reason for being on the station, except to torture this couple.
Good science fiction films ask questions about the nature of humanity. Star Trek, for example, is always looking ahead at man’s place in the universe and proving that as a species humans are capable of great things. Sometimes that future is not so bright, as several Charlton Heston films have proven, such as Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, or The Omega Man. Even bad sci-fi films rely on the adventurous spirit of the genre, like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon to gloss over the lack of substance. Saturn 3 has none of that, which may be due to claustrophobic setting, not really allowing for a look at the state of the future, or perhaps due to the lack of characters in the film, at only three.
Made at the cusp of the 80s, there is a sense of two worlds colliding with the meeting of Alex and Adam, the botanical research team, and Benson, the worker sent to provide new efficiencies at the station. As a couple, whose names both start with the letter ‘A’, Alex and Adam are loose and casual with the wardrobe, their sexuality, and their language. Benson represents the outside interloper bringing new (unasked for) automation, and is curt, clipped, and proper in his tight space suit. Interestingly enough, to get more of the effect of Benson being a “tight-ass,” Keitel’s voice was dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice, which provides a very unsettling collision of his character.
Benson also dresses in darker colors with a black space helmet while the “A’s” helmets are both white. A minor consideration, but this film really does boil things down to black vs white. But the motivations of the characters are never on display. Alex is understandably upset by the unwarranted advances of Benson, and trying to survive the homicidal robot. But why does Benson decide to kill James and come to the station? Everyone makes a joke about how back-water Saturn 3 is, yet he’s driven to go on this mission, even though he is potentially unstable (and obviously security is lax at this point in the future as well). The film feels like it needed the setup to get a homicidal robot on the space station, and this choice was as good as any.
Throughout the film Adam fantasizes about killing Benson, and wonders if he could do it. At the greenhouse, after Hector has killed Sally, Adam has the opportunity to leave Benson inside but cannot do it. He admits these failings to Alex who understands, but for some reason Adam seems to think it’s a bigger deal. He almost strangles Benson later, but Alex is able to get him to stop before he does something he’ll regret. Of course, these character moments are all leading to the sacrifice that Adam decides to make at the end to allow Alex to be free and rid the world of the killer robot. The film shows Adam making a good sacrifice, something he says robots can never do, of killing himself to better the world and save others. It doesn’t come off as a noble act, but more trite and obvious, due to all the multiple hints at his advanced age.
The Science in The Fiction
As far as the science in science-fiction, the film is not completely off base. It takes place in some distant future, where the Earth is (apparently) overcrowded and they have decided to try terraforming, or maybe just growing crops, on the third moon of Saturn. Not as convenient as the biome ships from Silent Running. And it seems a bit far away, both from Earth and the Sun, but just go with it. They have a number of smaller robots that help with the job. Robots do help farmers, but maybe not as sci-fi inspired as the ones here. Obviously overpopulation is something that is very real and a thing that many other films have touched on as being an issue in the future. Again, it’s all cursory here.
Then there’s the humanoid robot Hector. While robots in the modern world are getting more human-like, the core elements of this Demigod series are completely outlandish. First, why would someone invite karma by calling the robot a Demigod. That does not seem to inspire consumer confidence! But on top of that they use human brains. And not just regular human brains. Brains harvested from human fetuses. The ethics surrounding the machine are seriously flawed if anyone thought that any of this was a good idea. Add to the list of poor choices, providing mood altering drugs to a possibly psychotic individual. Maybe they were to help with his issues, but Benson seemed to have quite an assortment at the end of the film; more than just the simple sleeping pills he offered Alex. It seems as if a civilization that can harvest brain tissue into sentient robots should be able to have moved beyond ingesting pills to stabilize moods.
The most scientifically accurate thing appears to be Colin Chilvers special effects. The space shots of Saturn and the moons are beautiful with the spaceships gliding between them. That is until Benson’s ship, en route to Saturn 3, flies directly through Saturn’s rocky ring. In what appears to be rocks underwater, the ship is buffeted for a few moments before flying out again and towards its final destination. Taking a spaceship, purposefully, into a ring of icy, rocky debris is ludicrous and probably to be avoided at all costs. It’s an interesting scene from a visual standpoint, but makes no logical sense in retrospect.
The Final Frontier
This was Farrah Fawcett’s second sci-fi film after her bit part in Logan’s Run several years prior. Unfortunately even the stunning star of Charlie’s Angels, could not help this film. The age difference between her and Kirk Douglas comes off as a bit creepy. He was about 30 years older than her at the time, and towards the end of his career–having never appeared in a sci-fi film before. There’s nothing particularly standout about his role. He’s playing Kirk Douglas, and it’s okay. And then there’s Harvey Keitel. Famous for his tough guy roles in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, he seems very uncomfortable and out of his element here, disregarding the fact that his voice is not used either. And that’s it. These are the only characters we see for a long 87-minutes. Just not enough enjoyment and chemistry coming from the screen.
Saturn 3 is a dud. And that’s alright. From time to time there will be bad films reviewed here on Sci-Fi Saturdays. Sometimes they’ll be so bad they’re good, like Laserblast. And other times, they’ll just be bad. But they all go into the vault as another step for science-fiction films to get to the place where they are today: a highly respected genre with amazing special effects and thought-provoking plotlines. Come back next week for a sure crowd pleaser and one of the most appealing sci-fi movies of all time.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.