In the 1970s British television mogul Lord Lew Grade made the ill-fated decision to move into feature films. Grade had demonstrated an uncanny instinct for what would work for television audiences but he clearly had little understanding of the film industry. Saturn 3, released in 1980, was one of the many misfires that resulted.
In fact Saturn 3 is not all that bad. It’s biggest problem was timing. In 1980 sci-fi audiences expected action and spectacle in the Star Wars mould. Saturn 3 is more in the style of odd quirky early to mid 70s sci-fi films like Colossus: The Forbin Project, Westworld and Demon Seed and like those films it deals with technology run amok.
The story unfolds at a food research establishment on the third moon of Saturn. The station was set up to help provide food for the starving millions on Earth (this being the 70s there has to be a reference to the 70s obsession with overpopulation). Why exactly growing food on the third moon of Saturn would help feed people on Earth is never explained.
There are only two people on Saturn 3, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett) and they appear to be more interested in their bedroom romps than in doing any actual research. They are however thoroughly enjoying themselves. Or at least they were, until Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) arrived.
Benson has been sent to get the research moving along, mainly by constructing and then programming a robot named Hector. Benson in fact was never supposed to be sent on this mission - he’d washed out of the training program due to his all too evident craziness. Benson murdered the man who was supposed to be sent and took his place.
It’s soon obvious that Benson is more interested in bedding Alex than in food research. Alex however is not interested.
Meanwhile Benson presses ahead with the programming of Hector. This is accomplished by “direct input” - essentially Benson’s personality is imprinted on the robot. Given that Benson is a sex-crazed murderer this has unfortunate consequences. Soon Hector is a crazy, and as sex-obsessed, as Benson.
As you would expect Hector eventually run amok and Adam and Alex spend a great deal of time being chased by the insane killer robot.
The personnel behind this movie provide a few surprises. Novelist Martin Amis, not exactly noted for his science fiction, wrote the screenplay from a story by John Barry. Barry was supposed to direct but he had a falling-out with star Kirk Douglas and in any case he died fairly early on in the film’s troubled production history. Producer Stanley Donen ended up directing the movie. Donen of course was famous as a director of musicals although he also did some terrific lightweight thriller/romances in the early 60s (such as Charade and Arabesque).
Donen’s background in musicals is undoubtedly responsible for some of this movie’s odder (and more interesting) visual moments. The early scenes on the giant space station as Captain Benson’s spacecraft is being prepared for launch are choreographed exactly as if Donen had been making a big-budget 1950s musical. Surprisingly enough this works quite well and it certainly establishes a suitably quirky tone.
Kirk Douglas was one of the great Hollywood hams who could never see a piece of scenery without chewing it. This stood him in good stead when he turned to low-budget genre movies in the 70s. His acting isn’t exactly good but it works. On the other hand it has to be said that his nude scenes are not exactly a plus! Farrah Fawcett was obviously selected for her role purely for her ability to add some glamour but she’s perfectly adequate. Harvey Keitel is good although he might have been better had the decision not been made to get Roy Dotrice to dub his dialogue. The result is a bit disorienting but since he’s playing a complete nutjob it could be argued that it adds to the impression that Benson is not playing with a full deck. These three have to carry the entire film, there being virtually no other characters at all, and they do so quite effectively.
The special effects are of mixed quality. Some of the scenes of spacecraft in flight are very crude. The robot however is fairly impressive. The sets are terrific in an outlandish 1970s way. On the whole the movie is visually original and quite interesting.
Saturn 3 was a box-office bomb and quickly gained a reputation as a spectacularly bad movie. This is a little unfair. It has its flaws but it’s consistently entertaining and slightly unusual.
I watched the movie on an old non-anamorphic DVD edition but it’s recently been released in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack by Shout! Factory. Since much of the appeal of the movie derives from its visuals it’s probably worth picking it up on Blu-Ray.
Saturn 3 is by no means a great movie but it’s oddly enjoyable. Recommended.