CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Saturn 3 (1980)

In memory of the recently-deceased seventies icon, Farrah Fawcett, I decided to blog today about Saturn 3 (1980), perhaps Farrah’s most notable excursion into celluloid horror.

Of course, I fully realize that Saturn 3 is widely considered a bomb, a stinkeroo and a blight upon mankind. It was also a favorite of the Golden Raspberry Awards.

But you know something? Critics aren’t always right. Stanley Donen’s Saturn 3 is a half-crazy, occasionally-inspired mating of Frankenstein and 2001: A Space Odyssey…one played out between three humans and a giant robot against a high-tech, futuristic backdrop.


Taken on those simple terms, the film is enjoyable, literary, occasionally exciting, and consistently watchable.

Saturn 3 depicts the the story of the psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), a scientist who travels to the Experimental Food Research Station on Saturn 3 during a twenty-two day eclipse and communications black-out called “Shadow Lock.”


There, the good captain provides “assistance” to two scientists working to alleviate a famine on our overpopulated, polluted planet Earth. Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his young romantic partner, the beautiful and innocent Alex (Fawcett) are wary, however, of Benson’s form of help: a colossal humanoid robot named Hector, the first of the “Demi God” series. Hector boasts human intelligence (not to mention human brain tissue…) and can even pattern his personality on the direct input he receives from human beings. Since Benson is psychotic, this means that Hector is also psychotic. In short order, the robot begins to develop the same lustful feelings for lovely Alex that Benson has rudely begun to demonstrate…

Named after the Trojan Prince beaten by Achilles outside the walls of Troy, the robot Hector represents Saturn 3’s embodiment of the classic Frankenstein Monster, a lumbering abomination given life by a Prometheus-style scientist, here essayed by the over-dubbed (but still creepy…) Harvey Keitel.

Hector has been created, it seems, to glorify Benson; to prove to skeptical (and off-screen) co-workers that he is a genius. As is the case in Victor Frankenstein’s tragedy, there’s a high degree of vanity involved in the genesis of this new life. As Victor sought to “bestow animation” upon “lifeless matter,” so does Benson seek to introduce intelligence and even “human learning” to cold machinery. And again like Victor, Benson pioneers a “new way,” or new science to achieve his aims. Though he is not technically breaching “the awful boundary between life and death” that Shelley artfully described, Benson is breaching the barrier between man and machine.

Hector’s biology also merits comparison to the Frankenstein Monster. This Demi-God class robot is a collection of metallic spare parts and pure brain tissue grown in a lab, not organic corpse parts given life. But much like the Frankenstein Monster, Hector boasts the interesting (and unusual…) combination of a fully formed (or adult) physicality with a naive, almost child-like sense of intelligence. And, as the Frankenstein Monster quickly determines, it is “miserably alone,” and seeks companionship. Interestingly, Hector seeks companionship too…sexual compansionship with Alex.

In both stories, the “child” (the monster) turns on the Bad Father, the Creator. In the case of Frankenstein, the rejected/unwanted child draws out the process of killing the parent (“I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart so that you shall curse the hour of your birth…”) In Saturn 3, Hector quickly kills Benson and turns his attention towards dominating Alex, a subtle acknowledgment, perhaps of a society (America in the 1980s) more consumed with sex.

Going back to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one might also be temped to gaze upon Hector as HAL’s child: a computer with a menacing, ambulatory physicality to go along with the parent’s cold, calculating brain. In the Kubrick film, however, one never knows why HAL goes insane and murders the crew of the Discovery. The reasons for Hector’s instability are plain in Saturn 3, and they reflect the Frankenstein story again. Benson, like Victor, is a bad father. One who, through his own intrinsic psychological flaws, overreached and was not able to handle the role of parent. And in this case, the son has inherited the father’s psychosis.

Saturn 3 also fascinates in the manner it re-purposes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. In the Old Testament, God created Adam and Eve and provided them a glorious Paradise in Eden. This couple wanted for nothing until a serpent invaded the Garden and tantalized Eve with the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

This simple story is re-cast in explicitly technological (and secular, scientific…) terms in Saturn 3 with a character named, of course, Adam dwelling in isolated bliss with his lover, Alex. Their facility is an Experimental Food Research Station featuring an abundance of greenery, a hydroponics bay that could easily be interpreted as…a “garden.”

The film also defines the lives of Adam and Alex as ones of unending bliss. Their facility is like a spa. They exercise regularly, jogging the curving, empty corridors. They live in love and peace, sheltered away from the modern, polluted world. Alex is a total innocent, never having visited Earth and knowing nothing of its customs.

Into this paradisical world arrives the Serpent (or Serpents, in this case) — Hector and Benson. It is not the apple that Benson offers Alex, but lustful sex and recreational drugs, the latter in the form of psychedelic “Blue Dreamers.” He awakes in Alex, at the very least, the realization that she has lived a sheltered life. He spawns in Alex a desire to see Earth, which Adam also encourages.

In the coda of Saturn 3, following Adam’s sacrifice to defeat Hector, Alex leaves the sealed-up paradise, boards a spaceship and heads for Earth. The Garden is left behind permamently. Alex has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge and now returns to the world of fallen man.

There’s a nice, commendable simplicity to the narrative of Saturn 3. Against the plainly mythological and literary backdrops, there are but few characters and locations. The movie cleverly isolates its dramatis personae in a trap within a trap within a trap. They’re in a hermetically sealed facility on an inhospitable planet during an eclipse. Thus — again like their Biblical counterparts — Adam and Alex are really in a sort of “bubble world.” The outside world doesn’t exist for them, and that means there is no chance of a rescue operation. The future of man (and machine…), it seems, is to be settled here, in this place, with just these few people and their values.

Hector also makes for a powerful, memorable villain. Although he apparently lacks human genitals, Hector has been (inadvertently) programmed with a physical lust for Alex, making him one of the screen’s most memorably randy robots (though probably nobody can give Demon Seed’s Proteus a real run for his money…). Hector is a murderous child, a sadist, and entirely malicious. At least with the Frankenstein Monster, you felt some sense of compassion. He was “malicious” because he was “miserable.” Hector is somehow…colder.

The sets, special effects and costumes in Saturn 3 are all top-notch too, at least for 1980 vintage. And then, of course, there’s Farrah Fawcett in a central performance: effortlessly exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time. As in her other roles, there was a winsome and fetching quality to Fawcett. Saturn 3 makes fine use of her naturalness, her seeming sinlessness, even as it exploits her amazing good looks.

Perhaps the aspect of Saturn 3 that I enjoy most involves Adam’s journey, however, not Alex’s. Adam deeply fears contamination from the outside (from Earth). He has thus set up a utopia on Saturn 3, a perfect little existence. While Earth starves, he possesses plenty of food. While lust and casual sex dominate amongst Earthers far away, Adam has found a perfect, innocent mate who truly loves him. He has attained the goal of intimacy. But when Hector and Benson arrive, they bring “the tree of knowledge” with them. On Earth, Adam would have feared being at the mercy of society, of the government, of his peers. Well, suddenly, in his perfect world, he is at the mercy of Hector, a psychotic who can control every aspect of his environment. Hector controls the air, the food supply, the temperature…everything. Adam is thus made slave to the very technology he has always feared and disdained, and that’s a metaphor for the life he fled: one of regimented control where he was but a cog in the wheel. Perhaps that is the reason why Adam chooses to fight Hector to the death, because like Alex, he too has been ejected from paradise by the arrival of this interloper.

Saturn 3 even closes with a commendable message: that it is the capacity for self-sacrifice that ultimately separates a human soul from artificial intelligence. Hopefully, that’s the message that Alex takes back to Earth and preaches. That mankind — in his ability to put the welfare of those he loves before his own life — can conquer the machines, overpopulation, lust and the other bugaboos that threaten to destroy a species in perpetual crisis.

With DNA culled from the Old Testament, the work of Mary Shelley and even Stanley Kubrick, Donen’s somewhat silly Saturn 3 sure has a “great body.”

May I (respectfully…) suggest…you use it?

8 responses to “CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Saturn 3 (1980)

  1. Hey John,
    Glad to see a little love for Saturn 3! I saw this one in the theater as a kid, and it really stuck with me (though at the time much of the subtext was over my head). I even own the laserdisc and have the one-sheet hanging up (no fair weather fan here : ) It has great performances, and still interesting production design. I also think the sacrifice message at the end plays out well, and the movie gives you far more to think about than most of the stuff we get now.

    On an interesting side note, I read years later about how Lew Grade got angry with Keitel and actually had his entire performance dubbed. I can't be entirely sure, but I swear it sounds like Simmonds from Space:1999. Give a listen and see what you think . . .

  2. John Kenneth Muir

    Hey Jim!

    Thanks for writing!

    Glad to see that I'm not alone in my Saturn 3 affection. And you are absolutely correct, sir. That's Roy Dotrice dubbing all of Harvey Keitel's dialogue. Crazy to think about…

    best,
    JKM

  3. Andrew Glazebrook

    Big fan of this movie, I even did a graphic of the Logo seen in the movie on the uniforms for a T-Shirt I had printed up !
    There was talk last year of a remake of this getting done, not seen anything recently about it though !!

  4. This film isn't sucessful in several respects. First, the 'robot' is so obviously just a man in a suit. The special effects aren't state of the art for 1980. They look as if they belong in a 1960's Italian sci-fi movie. The approach to the moon base is particularly awful. The idea that any spacecraft would fly through Saturn's rings (and not around them) is mind-bogglingly stupid. The effects for the rings are laughable (since they consist of objects floating in water). The sound effects seem awfully close to those in Space:1999. That Lew Grade nixed the idea of a third season of Space:1999 to focus ITC's money on it's failed film division, including this film and "Raise The Titanic", is all the more reason to dislike this film. And also, no one needed to see Kirk Douglas's backside.

  5. John Kenneth Muir

    Hey Anonymous,

    Thanks for commenting and offering your thoughts on Saturn 3. Welcome to the blog.

    Now…Hector — the robot — is explicitly supposed to be modeled on the human form/anatomy, so I don't see that looking like a man in a suit is necessarily a disqualifier to quality.

    If you watch ALIEN today, in certain scenes the monster there looks like a man in a suit too. We're watching both films thirty years later. These are the perils of aging effects, but not a serious impediment to enjoying the film.

    Two, besides the fact that I enjoy Italian sci-fi movies of the 1960s, I respectuflly disagree about the value of the effects. I think the miniature work holds up very well, and the sets and full-scale mock-ups are, in particular, incredible.

    I'm in strong agreement with you in wishing (and wishing!) for Space:1999 third's season. In fact, I would have preferred it to Saturn 3 by a huge margin.

    But Saturn 3 is the movie that got made, and I don't think you can review a movie negatively on the basis that Space:1999's third season wasn't made in its place.

    I mean…is it really fair to hold that decision against Stanley Donen, the director? Or Farrah Fawcett? They got the greenlight to make their movie, and did so.

    And, no offense, but Kirk Douglas's backside is — again — not a serious or substantive criticism of Saturn 3.

    Best,
    JKM

  6. For what it's worth, as much as I love Space:1999, I'm glad the third season didn't happen. Season 2 was a step down. I can still appreciate it because I love so much about the show, but had no desire to see it continue on that trajectory. So in this regard I would heap unreasonable praise on Saturn 3 for keeping season 3 from happening : )

    And as far as Kirk Douglas's backside goes I never will forget these ladies behind me and my Dad in the theater oohing and ahhing when that happened. So everyone's mileage varies depending on one's perspective.

    Finally, the idea of flying through the rings of Saturn (even if outrageous) intrigues me now and intrigued me then. I would agree that the effects in that particular sequence have not aged well, but I still have a soft spot for them. The sets, Hector, and the decontamination room still are top notch I think for the time (and not even so bad now for practical effects).

  7. The history behind the movie is about as interesting as the movie itself… John Barry (the production designer) came up with the story and it was to be his directing debut. The story gets very murky at this point, but allegedly, Kirk Douglas was instrumental in Barry leaving the project, which led to Donen (who was producer) to step in as director.

    Martin Amis' novel MONEY obliquely alludes to the making of SATURN 3.

  8. Hey John,
    Excellent, intelligent and thought-provoking review! You might be interested in a new site I launched just recently on the making of Saturn 3:

    http://saturn3makingof.com/

    It’s great to see there are others out there who appreciate this film as much as I do.

    Cheers! 🙂

    greg

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