The Film: 4/5
Saturn 3 is a scientific research station established on the moon of Titan to investigate methods that could be used to solve a food shortage crisis plaguing Earth. Its only inhabitants are commanding officer Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his assistant and lover Alex (Farrah Fawcett), but they are about to be joined by Captain James (Harvey Keitel), who has been sent to Saturn 3 in order to speed up their work. He has brought along Hector, the most advanced robot yet to be invented and one that takes its orders directly from the brain of its human master. Unbeknownst to Adam and Alex, the aloof and brusque captain is actually the evil Benson who killed the real James prior to his departure for Saturn 3 and took his place with mysterious intentions. Not as elusive are the designs he has on the beautiful but uninterested Alex and his desire to remove Adam (whom Benson views as “obsolete”) from the picture entirely. Something he didn’t anticipate was his inability to keep the rather large and powerful Hector under his control. Feeding off the psychotic desires of the saboteur Benson, the robot becomes an unstoppable killing machine. Unless Adam and Alex can figure out a way to destroy it they may never get to realize their dream of returning to Earth together.
I first saw parts of Saturn 3 during a late night cable television airing sometime in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Back then I didn’t think much of what I saw, and apparently neither did critics and audiences at the time of its theatrical release. Roger Ebert particularly wasn’t too kind to the movie. As the years went on I had no interest in seeing it in full but I started to become fascinated by the tumultuous production stories, including original director John Barry (who also first conceived of the story in 1975) being replaced by the legendary Stanley Donen. Best known for frothier celluloid fare as Singin’ in the Rain and Charade, Donen initially served as the producer of Saturn 3. He did his best to nurture first-time helmer Barry - who had an extensive background in production design for films such as Star Wars and Superman: The Movie - but in the earliest days of shooting it was perfectly clear that the neophyte had no experience with actors or marshalling a production of this scope. Barry had hoped to make Saturn 3 a smaller scale feature with an emphasis on ideas and character development, and he turned to famed British novelist Martin Amis to flesh out his concept into a full screenplay. Once global media baron Lord Lew Grade and his production company ITC Entertainment, which had great international success with The Muppet Show and its 1979 movie spin-off The Muppet Movie, became involved the production of Saturn 3 began to attract high-powered talent on both sides of the camera. Grade hoped the movie would be able to successfully cash in on the trend-setting box office blockbusters Star Wars and Alien. Barry had in fact turned down a chance to head up the design team on The Empire Strikes Back to make his directorial debut; when he had to surrender his director’s chair to the more-experienced Donen he was able to rejoin the production of Empire heading up the second unit. Two weeks later he contracted meningitis and died on June 1, 1979 at the age at 43. It is widely believed that Barry’s death was partially brought about by a weakening of his immune system due to the onset of depression in the wake of losing Saturn 3, a project close to his heart.
Barry may have been the true visionary behind the film, but without a strong and passionate director calling the shots Saturn 3 would have imploded into a gorgeous-looking train wreck. Donen fit the bill just fine even though he was hardly invested in the material as much as the late Barry. Fortunately he didn’t have to do much once he took the top job on the production except keep things moving and make sure the actors didn’t kill each other. On that note Donen does a job that is above and beyond mere competency. It’s a very professional job and the director makes the most of the handsome futuristic sets designed by Stuart Craig (the Harry Potter series) and Norman Doone (Krull) and brought to life by set decorator Alan Cassie (Rambo III). Billy Williams, who had previously shot Sunday Bloody Sunday for John Schlesinger and The Silent Partner for Daryl Duke, films the sets in eye-popping colors and strikes the right balance of lighting and darkness in most of the scenes to amazing emotional effect. Saturn 3 was a mostly interior film, and the sets that comprise the moon base where the majority of the action takes place is a marvel of menacing tunnels lined with pipes and tubes constantly venting steam. I wonder if the production consulted with Central Services on their design. Laboratory sets glisten with vast silvery machines. The film features some wonderfully old school practical effects including models and miniatures representing the various space vessels and bases, and though sometimes these effects may seem primitive and obvious I will gladly accept them in place of the overexposed CGI that tends to date films faster and rarely comes across as accomplished and made with love and imagination.
Amis’ screenplay, born of a thin concept from Barry himself, is mostly boilerplate sci-fi that never appears to want to explore the overwhelming potential of the story. I chalk this up to the disjointed nature of the production which spent millions on sets, effects, talent, and a robotic nemesis that worked about as well as the shark in the original Jaws. Donen was trying to get the picture done and turn out a final product that would sell with cynical modern movie going audiences. I get that. At least the slight thread of a plot that remains in Saturn 3 makes sense in the cut released to theaters and home video. An extended version was prepared for television broadcast that fleshed out the characters a bit but had little effect on the story. If there was supposed to be a love triangle in the plot it never becomes realized since the character of Benson is too cold and calculating and lacking in charisma to make him a credible romantic rival for Alex’s affections. When he tries to come on to her it plays out as creepy and uncomfortable, and Douglas is a likeable force of nature even when he’s restrained. The only plot hole that took me out of the story often is Benson’s motivation for being on Saturn 3; if this psychopath is willing to kill another man (in a gory set piece from the film’s opening moments) to get to the base then surely he must have a damn good reason. Is he a saboteur? Does he have diabolical plans for Adam and Alex’s research? Speaking of which, why is it that we never see our two heroes doing anything remotely scientific, outside of the rare occasions when they put on spacesuits and walk out onto the surface of the work to perform unspecified tasks? Adam and Alex are supposed to be scientists working on a solution to Earth’s food crisis, but not once is their research discussed and analyzed. If Donen and Amis had concentrated on these gaping holes in the narrative I would have likely enjoyed the movie more on a storytelling level than merely seeing it as a head-on collision between a schlock 1950’s B-movie and the pseudo-erotic styling of Heavy Metal magazine.
The actors perform their roles with cool professionalism. Only Kirk Douglas stands out, but far be it from this legend to ever phone in a performance. Well into his 60’s at the time Saturn 3 was made, Douglas isn’t so conscious of his body that he won’t strip to the buff for his love scenes with Fawcett (who also gets nude several times, no doubt to the eternal pleasure of the impressionable teen audiences Grade was hoping to attract to the film) or when he attempts to murder Benson at a crucial point in the story. He also gets the lion’s share of witty dialogue - though they tend to be unmemorable one-liners - and Douglas makes his relationship with Alex believable. No surprise here that Fawcett is the weak link acting-wise; she was hired for her name and looks, end of story. But she is beautiful and often acts in defiance of standard sci-fi/horror flick female leads by actually taking an active role in the story, though more often than not Fawcett is called upon to run around screaming from Hector in the skimpiest of clothing. Keitel’s performance was hurt by Donen’s decision to have his entire vocal performance dubbed by a different actor in post-production, but he still manages to convey an air of menace and arrogance and comes through as a convincing threat to Adam and Alex. In the end though, no human member of the cast is a match for the one the producers chose to stick on the U.S. release poster: Hector, the imposing bastard love child of Gort and Rom The Space Knight.
Saturn 3 makes its long-awaited debut on U.S. DVD and Blu-ray after being available for years only as lower quality foreign releases. Shout! Factory has done a typically outstanding job restoring the movie to its original theatrical splendor. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and remastered in 1080p high-definition, the film’s dazzling visual effects and production design are now erupting with color and vitality for the first time in ages. Every element in the picture has been cleaned up and sharpened for the finest clarity, but never at the expense of sacrificing each bit of fine grain that would compromise the filmic quality of the print. On the audio side of things we are given two viable listening options - 5.1 stereo and 2.0 mono, both in English and in explosive DTS-HD Master Audio. For home theater enthusiasts the 5.1 track is essential as the volume levels for the music and sound effects come through with improved lucidity, but those of you with standard television set-ups will get just as much pomp and circumstance with the mono track. Both channels feature terrific balance in the various elements of the sound mix and audio distortion is nowhere to be found. Dialogue sounds crystalline. English subtitles have also been provided.
Given that director Donen (preparing to shoot his new film at the age of 89) and leading men Douglas and Keitel are still alive and well it’s a shame that Shout! Factory, which is releasing this film through their genre-friendly Scream Factory imprint, wasn’t able to create the fascinating and in-depth supplements a definitive home video edition of Saturn 3 absolutely demands. It would have been magnificent if the original audio tracks of Keitel’s performance had been offered as an alternative to the main soundtrack, as when MGM included the Australian audio on its DVD and Blu-ray releases of Mad Max. But fans of the movie will be quite satisfied with the line-up of extras they managed to scrape together.
First up is a new audio commentary with Greg Moss, webmaster of the Saturn 3 fan site “Something is Wrong on Saturn 3”, and film writer David Bradley. Despite not having any involvement with the production of the movie both men are well-versed in its production history to have a decent discussion packed with enough fascinating bits of trivia and background to make this track worth a listen.
The first of two all-new interviews sits down with actor Roy Dotrice (6 minutes) for a brief chat about getting the call from Donen to redub every line of dialogue spoken by Keitel in post-production as the director was not happy with the actor’s New York accent. Dotrice has a good memory of the process and shares a few amusing insights, including the fact that his ADR work on Saturn 3 was done all in one morning right before lunch. Special effects director Colin Chilvers was heavily involved in the production from the beginning and the topics brought up in his interview (16 minutes) cover his working relationships with Donen and original director Barry, creating the various practical effects, and how the crew went about with the operation of the robot Hector - which set the production back a pretty penny. Chilvers has nothing but sweet things to say about his directors and the cast and he praises their professionalism.
For the film’s 1984 network television premiere on NBC ten minutes of previously deleted scenes were restored in order to bring the running time up to fit a two-hour broadcast (including commercials). Those scenes have been included here as an extra, sourced from a cruddy VHS copy. The additional footage is mostly extensions of existing scenes, with the proper moments from the theatrical cut inserted as bookends for welcome context. The quality of the footage is unsurprisingly low with noticeable audio distortion and faded colors. In these scenes Hector’s exterior armor goes from silver to gold! The three main characters are fleshed out somewhat in these cutting room floor outtakes. Fans of Saturn 3 will be delighted at the inclusion of the fabled deleted “Ecstasy Scene” (3 minutes) which takes place after Adam and Alex split up and ingest the blue “Dreamer” pill given to her by Benson. A disco music cue composed by Bernstein can be heard in full here, whereas only a portion made it into the theatrical release. Most notably, Fawcett can be seen dressed in a sexy black leather outfit that was used in the film’s marketing materials despite Donen removing it from his final cut. The quality of the deleted footage here is solid and almost up to the level of the restored feature, but parts of the audio were lost.
The bonus features round out with a theatrical trailer (3 minutes), a pair of VHS-sourced television spots (1 minute), and an image gallery containing production stills, lobby cards, and foreign and domestic poster art. You can also find more candid behind-the-scenes shots at Moss’ website www.saturn3makingof.com.
This combo pack also includes a DVD copy with an anamorphic widescreen presentation of Saturn 3 in standard-definition and all of the accompanying supplements.
In spite of its troubled production Saturn 3 still turned out to be an oddly entrancing work of entertaining sci-fi with solid performances, nifty special effects, and the professional direction of the great Stanley Donen. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray comes highly recommended with its top-flight video and audio upgrade and fine bonus materials.