Saturn 3 (1980)
Directors: Stanley Donen and John Barry
review by Andrew Darlington
Film is a collaborative medium. Its creation involves compromise, sometimes resented concessions. Budgetary restrictions and studio politics can render the finest ambitions to the straight-to-video
bin. Something like all of those things went into Saturn 3, which should have been better than it is. The will was there. The ability was there. And yet the results are... flawed.
It's a glittering techno-fantasia of cyber-porn, yet technology and effects strain at the limits of what is visually possible. More modestly, it's also a three-actor chamber-piece; a three-way
dynamic with Kirk Douglas, the ageing alpha-male, competing with Harvey Keitel, the ruthless younger rival, for the favours of the nubile Farrah Fawcett. She has a cheek-scan that denotes she's
never been to Earth. Yes, she's a scientist too, but does a lot of flouncing around in scanty underwear. She operates high-tech equipment, but frolics in cutesy lingerie. There's even a fleeting
glimpse of her breasts, which constituted a strong marketing feature in 1980.
After all, she was 'Jill Munroe' from the first episode of Charlie's Angels. She's sexy, but in that clean wholesome Olivia Newton-John kind of family-viewing sexy. Why Saturn 3? Saturn
was the name given to a series of rocket boosters designed by the Wernher von Braun team as part of NASA's Luna programme. While in order of size - after Titan and Rhea, Iapetus is planet Saturn's
third largest moon. So perhaps the action is set on Iapetus?
There is silence as the credits form. There's a matte painting of Saturn, a moon sidles into view, and a ship slides from top-screen in Star Wars style, gradually revealing its vast bulk.
Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack now recalls the classic grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shadow-figures assemble on a stylised set. Some are non-gravitationally upside-down. A faceless
figure dons a black helmet. Captain James is paged for launch 392, but the black figure opens the airlock so that he's sucked out and smashed into bloody pieces against a grid.
His place is taken by Benson (Harvey Keitel). "Have a pleasant trip, Captain." Now the shuttle with its substituted pilot descends between the pincers of the great mothership, rattles
through Saturn's unfeasibly densely-packed rings towards an 'Experimental Food Research Station' on a mauve moon, where two white figures await his arrival. The three of them are now shadow-locked,
eclipsed by shifting moons into a highly-charged claustrophobic isolation.
The other element at work here is Martin Amis, who wrote the screenplay from a John Barry plot. He satirises his dissatisfaction with the process in his scabrously visceral novel Money (1984),
which details John Self's unedifying brush with the hilarious grotesques of the film world, how he's summoned to New York by movie-director 'Fielding Goodney' to work on his debut film.
Kirk Douglas had been Einar in The Vikings (1958), and he was Spartacus (1960), too. But that was some considerable time ago. Charlton Heston had renewed his audience with a sci-fi
trilogy. Maybe he could do the same? In the novel, 64-year-old Douglas appears under the guise of ageing hard-man Lorne Guyland, insecurely obsessed with the failing virility of his nude body.
In the novel, "the script conference ended with Lorne shrugging his robe to the floor and asking me, with tears in his eyes, 'Is this the body of an old man?' I said nothing. The answer to
Lorne's question, incidentally, was yes. I just flourished an arm and clattered down the stairs. Thursday gave me a tight smile as she opened the door. 'Is he nude?' she asked coldly. 'Yeah he's
nude.' 'Oh boy,' said Thursday." Now Major Adam (Douglas) and his lover-colleague Alex (Fawcett) shower together naked. He playfully slaps her bare bottom. Later they share a Blue Dreamer
drug, and toss an Earth-globe from one to the other.
Keitel had already made his mark with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), and Taxi Driver (1976), but his career was also losing momentum. He needed a hit. Now Benson (Keitel)
spies in on his host's love-making. Keitel, deviously sinister in a small pony-tail, tells Alex "you have a great body, may I use it?" Refusal is apparently considered an 'unsociable'
lack of hospitality on resource-poor overpopulated Earth. Later, he further defines Adam's role in their triangle, "I'm today; he's yesterday." When he's asked, "how long are you
staying?" Benson replies uncompromisingly "until I'm done." In other words, it will happen on his terms.
In other respects, the film remains old-fashioned hard-SF, with spaceships, alien moons, and a robot descended directly from Forbidden Planet's 'Robby'. Benson assembles Hector, a Demigod
series robot, from components. It is taller than all three of them. Fluids seep up a network of capillary tubes like a neural network to activate it. Then Benson syncs it into 'direct-control'
mode via a brain-drain socket in his neck, so that it mimics his every movement. Even so, it fails its first task by crushing a flask it's tasked with handling. Adam watches. "Lucky it wasn't
asked to shake hands," he quips, while wondering if he, too, is the obsolete model approaching his 'abort time' and due for replacement, reflecting the insecurities Amis imposes upon Lorne.
Later, Hector is fine-tuned sufficiently to extract a stone-chip from Alex's eye in a gruesome close-up reminiscent of a scene from Luis Bunuel. As an extension of Benson, the robot amplifies his
strength. However it is also subject to 'improper thought leakage' from his psychopathic instability. When it brain-drained from the Captain, it absorbed his killer-instinct too. So if it's a mad
robot story, aren't robots famously subject to the 'three laws of robotics'? What about Isaac Asimov? But no, Hector operates on pure brain-tissue extracted from human foetuses, so its organo-chemical
cortex makes it something more of an android, presenting it with an ethical equation. It knows Benson is a killer. It accuses him "I am not malfunctioning. You are."
The fault first becomes apparent in the station's hydroponics garden. Alex has a little dog called Sally. On their first encounter Benson bizarrely lifts it up, brandishing it to examine it,
holding it up to check its gender. Now Sally is dead, and Hector is lurking within the plant beds. As Alex passes by it reaches out and grabs her arm, until Benson orders it to release her. "He
wants you," Benson explains, "we both do," - because Hector is programmed with his own desires. Caught up in its moral dilemma the robot runs amok, attacking Benson, until it is Adam
who outmanoeuvres it so the three of them can escape, and then disables it. "We'll give him a headache he won't forget," he smiles grimly. When Hector goes to recharge, Adam hits the overload
button, stunning it. And they remove its brain before it revives. "Hector slain by Achilles," Adam gloats, quoting from Homer's Illiad, but his triumphalism will prove to be premature...
Despite its American cast and director, Saturn 3 is a British production, made by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment and shot at Shepperton Studios. Due to problems with his accent, Keitel's
voice is overdubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice. Film, after all, is a collaborative medium. Its creation involves compromise and concessions. Yet at its moral core is the stark eternal conflict
between good and evil, age and youth, experience and innovation, with the Promethean Frankenstein metaphor added as accelerant - which makes its failure even more problematical. David Pringle's
The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction (1997) devotes just two words to the film - "best forgotten," while critic John Clute more generously calls it "an enjoyable
potboiler" despite it being "a hoary old cliché."
Its release followed the success of Alien (1979), from which it suffers badly by comparison. But Alien also drew on older models - particularly It! The Terror From Beyond Space
(1958), with its rampaging Martian killer-monster on board an Earth-bound spaceship. It was Ridley Scott's quantum leap shock-effects combined with H.R. Giger's alien designs that propel it into
abrupt modernity. In the same way that George Lucas put all his childhood Saturday matinee Flash Gordon serials through the blender to pour out Star Wars (1977), yet recharges its
themes for new audience relevance. Stanley Donen fails to make that vital transition with Saturn 3, which stubbornly remains on the wrong side of the cultural event horizon. It's not even
that it's a victim of the digital revolution, its miniaturised modelling, but so were Alien and the first version of Star Wars.
And the film gets nastier. Hector might be dismantled, but what Pringle calls the "lustful psychopathic robot" retains a survival imperative. It utilises the research base's equipment
to reconstruct itself. Fluids refill the neural network of capillary tubes to reactivate it. Its two eye-lights illuminate. Meanwhile, Benson declares he's leaving the station, taking Alex with
him. The two dominant males fight, until a naked Adam overcomes the younger man, with only Alex's intervention preventing murder... it's at that moment that Hector makes his dramatic appearance,
seizes Benson - amputating his hand in the process, and drags him away for further atrocities. The Captain's face appears on the screen to announce that man and droid have come to an 'arrangement',
his severed head grotesquely impaled on Hector's body!
Adam and Alex try to reach the escape shuttle through vents and access-passageways as Hector stalks them. It tracks them through the communications room, so Adam smashes the CCTVs. When they
attempt to reach the ship, Hector detonates it. They lay a trap for it, by weakening floor-panels above hydroponics garden fluid-tanks. When it detects the trap, Adam uses a crane to pitch it
forward into the vats anyway. It simply emerges from the pit covered in foam.
As the shadow-lock lifts and relief ship 'Survey 19' approaches, Adam wakes. He now has a socket in his neck. Hector speaks with his voice; it has his memories and shares his taste for Homeric
quotes. Earlier he'd joked "you can't program a sense of humour" into a robot, it also fails to understand the idea of 'sacrifice' in chess. So he straps a suicide-bombers belt of
explosives to his waist, meets Hector beside the open trap, where he launches himself at the robot, pitching them both into the pool. The explosion rips them both apart.
Finally, a World Spaceways passenger ship approaches the dark mottled sphere of 'Mother Earth'. Alex, sole survivor of the drama on Saturn's third moon is aboard. The shuttle descends, carrying
her down towards the home-world she's never visited...