Regardless of your feelings for Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, to deny that it fundamentally changed the way science fiction films were structured is folly. Star Wars brought science fiction back to the mainstream and convinced Hollywood that aliens, deep space stations, and robots were bankable.
Needless to say everyone in the industry who pitched a laser-wielding, robot smashing, space ship flying, script could pretty much guarantee a green light from a studio honcho. Such is the environment that gave us such amazingly awful cinema as Starcrash (directed by Italian Stallion Liugi Cozzi), Battle Beyond the Stars (directed by Corman Protégé Jimmy Murakami) and a whole host of other three-penny space operas.
Occasionally a film emerged from the countless Star Wars knockoffs to stand on its own, that film was Ridley Scott’s Alien, which in turn also spawned countless terrible imitations the worst of which, by virtue of its pedigree, is Stanley Donen’s horrendous Saturn 3.
How can you go wrong with acting talent (Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel) special effects talent (Collin Chivers), musical composition talent (Elmer Bernstein) and directing talent (Stanley Donen)? Well, it’s not easy to find a single culprit, but I can narrow it down to three variables, an absolutely moronic script, Farrah Fawcett, and dubbing Harvey Keitel’s voice.
Martin Amis, son of fantastic writer Kingsley Amis, cribs every possible plot device from Alien, 2001, and every crazed robot story ever appearing in Amazing Science Fiction Magazine for his script. And, as we have seen with so many films in the Hall of Shame, a bad script is nearly impossible to overcome. Saturn 3 doesn’t even try. It’s as if everyone involved (except for Ms. Fawcett) understands that they are involved in a terrible project and acts as if guest-starring in a Mexican soap opera, or perhaps, one of the lesser episodes of Fantasy Island.
Let’s start with the plot though, and explore the awfulness as it unravels before our eyes.
We begin with a space crawl torn directly from the first script pages of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, only this ship spends a lot more time crawling across the screen. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, the ship in this scene looks extremely cheap and awful so I am not sure how flattered George (everyone loves Jar Jar don’t they?) Lucas felt if he saw this, but smart goes with “not very”.
It’s actually funnier than the extended ship-crawl in Mel Brooks’ “Space Balls”, because unlike Brooks’ parody, Saturn 3 takes this seriously. We cut to the inside of the station as silhouetted personnel carry cases of some sort up a set of stairs onto what appears to be a stage.
The whole thing takes place with an echo voiced station wide announcement for Captain James to “report to pad 6”. Now we are introduced to what is possibly the cheesiest space ship committed for film since Ed Wood’s Table Talk Pie Plate flying saucers as used in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Captain James’ ship is little more than a relatively small lexan sphere on some telescopic legs.
The think doesn’t look large enough to keep a goldfish alive for long, yet we are expected to believe that the 25 or so people we’ve seen carrying cases of varied sizes fit all that space luggage into that ship, and that it’s still got space for a living human being.
This coordinated load out, it actually plays like something from a musical (more on that later), is inter cut with some hideously obvious scenes drawn from M. C. Escher’s conceptual drawings where people walk in all manner of orientation. It looks dreadful.
At this point my brain was reeling back over centuries of history to identify just who in the hell Stanley Donen was, and why his name seemed to strange when attached to a science fiction movie.
Stanley Donen, as it turns out, is a renowned director of such musical films as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” so it’s no surprise that Saturn 3 contains elements better suited to something with a rousing musical score.
In this film it just looks waaaaaaaay out of place.
Okay, we cut to a locker room where someone in a flight suit and helmet that in no way shape of form can the wearer even hope to see through, walks very carefully around the lockers as if looking for a good place to hide. The reason it looks to stiff is that perhaps the actor (who later turns out to be Harvey Keitel) can’t see a friggin' thing and has counted out the steps necessary to go from one place to the other without smashing into the set.
Enter Captain James in a flight suit with an identical helmet under his arm. He carries a tall stainless steel cylinder, why? Who cares. He places the cylinder on a flat spot between some lockers as the hiding guy appears.
Why was he hiding in the first place? Who cares.
James offers a one sided expository conversation asking is “Benson” is okay following his bad mental evaluation. James fails to notice that Benson is strapping himself into a chair and continues the conversation with such sage advice as “don’t bother fighting it man.”
It is not that James notices Benson is strapped in and about to hit the emergency hatch button, which he does. James floats up as the pressure in the locker room escapes, and shatters against some wires near the ceiling.
I won’t even bother debunking the awful science in this scene suffice to say it’s extremely stupid.
Benson then closes the hatch, steals the cylinder, and runs off to Captain James’ fishbowl on legs and take off in a puff of CO2 fog.
You think the special effects are bad now? Oh my friends, you ain’t seen anything... As Benson approaches a matte painting of Saturn (nowhere near as good as Chestley Bonestell’s fantastic space paintings) and enters the rings we get treated to the absolute cheapness of the whole special effects effort. The rings of Saturn are represented by brown colored wads of paper placed between mirrors on a tabletop and Benson’s ship suspended in front of the camera.
It’s the sort of awe inspiring effect you generally see in something an 8 year old does with the family super-8 camera, some wads of paper and mirrors.
Cut to a painfully obvious tabletop model of the Saturn 3 station, then to two people in white puffy-poof space suits beside a golf cart watch the fishbowl slowly descend as if suspended by clearly visible wires while belching another puff of CO2 fog.
Benson climbs clumsily out of his snow globe and enters the station with the two marshmallow-y residents of Saturn 3, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett). Benson starts his visit by droning on about procedures that we in the audience are not privy too, and therefore left completely clueless.
This is the first time we hear Harvey Keitel speak and it’s a travesty. I mean, he has one of the most distinctive and amazing voices in film, and Stanley Donen saw fit to DUB HARVEY KEITEL’S VOICE from a guy who sounds almost like the announcer on “The Wacky Races”.
Not only does this anger we Keitel fans, but it makes his near animatronic performance even more lifeless. The dubbing is so god awful I pined for the quality dub jobs out of Hong Kong via mid seventies Godzilla movies.
Ugh, but enough about that.
Benson wants to check in with base... Why? Doesn’t he think they will have figured out that he killed Captain James if he checks in? It doesn’t matter because Saturn 3 has just gone into eclipse behind um... Saturn... Just where in the hell is this station anyway? So, with them “shadowlocked” it’s impossible to get a message in or out for three weeks and a few days.
You know, I am no astronaut, but I can bet that no government would put people in a position to be out of contact for x-number of months. Besides, why not just orbit a few satellites to get around the line of sight problem?
Oh right... Amis idiotic script didn’t mention it. I forgot.
The inside of Saturn 3 consists of exactly three sets, a hallways junction, a room full of plants, and the swinging 70’s pad that Alex and Adam share in some weird preternatural connubial bliss. Donen sees fit to shoot these three sets from every conceivable angle, none of them good. I guess this was supposed to suggest some sort of isolation or claustrophobia, but it fails as everything is clean, new, and fresh. Unlike the incredibly lived-in sets of the Nostromo in Alien, the Saturn 3 station looks exactly like a set, and a Dr. Who set at that.
At one point I was hoping Davros and the Daleks would show up just to give me something interesting to look at.
No such luck.
The silliest of the sets is the swinging 70s pad, something copied from a 2001 set yard sale or something. The entire thing is crowded with that annoying Doug McClure (you might remember me from such movies as) Space 1999 hideously “modern” stuff in 70’s architectural mags.
Thank God the 70’s ended when they did...
Alex offers Benson a drink (in one of those toilet sized snifters usually seen in the rich murderer’s house in Columbo reruns) but he refuses. So Adam sends Alex to lead Benson to his quarters where he will sleep off the space flight with the help of some idiotic mystery drug named “Blue Dreamers”. Why is it idiotic? Well we never see what they do to anyone, and they come up over and over and over again.
Considering Kirk Douglass is like 70 years old in this movie and Farrah Fawcett is somewhere around 25 their relationship is maximum creepy. It’s not easy to watch Kirk Douglas slum through this movie. But Kirk Douglas is much easier to watch than Farrah Fawcett. She comes across as either retarded or severely brain damaged. Every single line is delivered like she’s just learning how to interact with other humans.
There’s a robot on this movie, but amazingly it isn’t her.
Apparently Benson is attracted to really dumb women because he makes his intentions known by stating, “you have a lovely body,” then asking, “may I use it?”
Needless to say, Alex isn’t won over by this subtle seduction.
This persistently stupid dialogue is one of the worst aspects of the script. I am not sure what Mr. Amis was reading when he prepared this but assuming that mechanical sexual roles, as demonstrated in dialogue like this, is the only thing reminding us that we’re in the future.
Compounding the stupidity of this exchange is Benson’s threat that on Earth her reluctance to immediately bend over for use is some sort of crime.
This idiotic conversation leads to the revelation of Alex’s desire to someday visit Earth.
Benson realizes that she’s never been there because of some ill defined tattoo on her temple.
Benson gives her a Blue Dreamer “in case she feels like trying it” and heads off to sleep. Alex heads back to Adam’s love nest and starts asking about the pills.
I wanted to fast forward, but I didn’t.
The next morning Benson has lugged all of his junk into the greenhouse room and is cataloging the pieces. What is all this stuff? It’s parts of a new helper robot brought to Saturn 3 specifically to help increase production of food for the starving folks back on Earth.
Assuming Saturn 3 is some enormous agribusiness venture I am probably not alone in asking “where in the hell are all the crops?” I mean, there are fewer potted plants on Saturn 3 than in my local supermarket house and garden aisle. Just how much food can they produce with such a small amount of foliage? A bushel of tomatoes? Two heads of lettuce?
Of course, the complete lack of agriculture is irrelevant when you consider the gargantuan stupidity of the whole premise. Why would humans set up a two-person agriculture project around Saturn? You’d think there would be ample real estate on, say, The Moon, Mars, or the moons of Jupiter, why go the extra billion miles to Saturn?
People who don’t read science fiction should be prohibited, by law, from writing science fiction movies.
Okay, Alex and Adam explain (yeah, there’s a lot of that) that they already have three robots but they aren’t very useful. I was surprised they didn’t point to their two shelves of potted plants representing their harvest and say, “see... goddamn robots..”
The new robot is Hector, a massive new generation robot who will eventually take over for one of the humans at Saturn 3. This adds a little more friction to the gripping human drama of Adam and Benson quietly simmering over their competitive lust for Alex the moron.
See, Benson is convinced that Alex will be leaving with him once Hector is up and running.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
That night Hector knocks on the door of Adam and Alex’s love closet surprising them both out of bed. Benson hangs back for the moment as we are treated to a detailed shot of the robot.
This is a tremendous mistake. Now, I realize that many people have complain about the awesome Giger Alien being pretty much persona-non-grata in the “Alien”, and the ridiculously large amount of screen time given to the Hector robot is in reaction to that, but you know I figure if you’re gonna spend 25 minutes showing the robot shambling around the station, at least try not to make it look hilariously silly.
Hector is all legs and torso. No really, his arms and head are tiny little radio controlled appendages stuck to the gigantic torso covered in plates shaped to resemble muscles. It actually looked kind of like what I imagined a real pair of Wallace and Gromit’s “The Wrong Trousers” would look like if someone actually made them.
Hector isn’t programmed yet, but he will be soon courtesy of Benson’s brain.
The next day Adam and Alex are playing chess (guess who wins? It must’ve felt to Kirk Douglas the way Gary Kasparov would feel if he were playing not against Deep Blue but against a toaster).
Adam challenges Hector to a match and beats him via the common chess idea “sacrifice”. This infuriates Hector and we get to hear his “angry Hector” noise, sort of a wheee-ooo wheee-ooo noise that will grate on your nerves. Hector demonstrates also that it hasn’t learned the advanced trait of humility and squishes one of the pieces with his claw.
I have to take a minute to mention the design of the chess set too, it’s also in the nauseating 70’s Space 1999 motif and is made of brushed aluminum and brass with very indistinct pieces. Plus, the thing is so huge it would be very hard to play a game without distraction.
Okay, Benson explains that he is programming Hector personally via a little port in the back of his head. And, since we know Benson is crazier than a shit-house rat, Hector will be too.
It’s this sort of blatantly obvious foreshadowing that makes this film so boring.
Okay, later Adam explains to Alex that Hector is a character from Greek Mythology who killed Achilles and dragged his body around the walls of Troy.
Do you care? Yeah, me neither.
Benson is watching Alex on a monitor now with Hector attached to his brain so Hector mirrors his movements. This is the only moderately cool scene in the movie. Benson then asks Hector to speak, but it refuses. Instead they have a Hal/Dave conversation via text screen.
Hector keeps brining up some girl that Benson has killed while Benson instructs him to erase those programming parts. None of this makes much sense, but it looks kind of cool.
Okay, Hector, now prowling around alone in the hydroponics lab kills Adam and Alex’s dog. Alex finds the dog and Hector attempts to also kill her. When Benson and Adam intervene Hector tries also to kill them.
They all escape though, which seems less difficult than they make it, while Hector tried really hard to rip through the door. He does not appear equipped to do so, but seems to be making good headway.
Back in the control room Adam, Alex, and Benson try and figure out what to do when Benson notices that Hector is running low on electricity. Adam overloads the socket where Hector is recharging and shorts out the robot.
Alex and Benson take it apart and pack it all up for transport. Benson is leaving soon, apparently.
That night while Benson and Adam fight over Alex (physically this time) Hector has the three existing station robots put him back together.
As Benson drags Alex towards the USS Snowglobe Hector attacks and apparently kills him. Now Adam and Alex have to run around like scared rabbits while Hector shambles around after them. They try to lure the robot into a hole in the floor but for some reason sees through their plan. This makes no sense, but you have to accept it I guess because that’s what happens.
Adam is able to knock Hector into the hole anyway and run off with Alex for Benson’s ship.
Meanwhile Hector pulls himself from the hole (with the help of several on-set helpers no doubt) and blows up the ship before they can reach it. It is never explained, of even discussed, why the ship would be connected to a detonator inside the station’s control room, but it is, and it blows up.
Now Adam and Alex are trapped.
Cut to the next morning (or so it seems) when Adam awakens in his uniform, a uniform he hasn’t worn for the whole film perhaps to underscore the casual nature of life on Saturn 3. Alex awakens too. Hector instructs them to get to work.
Meanwhile we get some more stellar special effects as a survey ship speeds along through the paper and mirrors rings of Saturn to check on Saturn 3 now that they are back in radio range. Adam notices that he now has a port on the back of his head. That means he is the one who will remain on the station and Alex will be killed, or at least, that’s what I inferred... This very deeply bothers Adam.
Hector, impersonating both Adam and Alex, tells the survey crew that everything is fine so they leave. It’s mildly dramatic, but not wholly unexpected.
Adam changes into an ultra-casual vest and meets up with Alex in the hall, telling her to go ahead into the hydroponics lab alone. Adam then goes off to retrieve several explosives and strap them around himself.
Before you can say sacrifice Adam tackles Hector (now wearing Harvey Keitel’s head), throws him into the same watery trap as before, and detonated the explosives.
A slow motion eruption of robot parts follows as little bits of Hector (though none of Adam, strangely enough) blow out of the hole in the floor.
What the…? If they had explosives on Saturn 3 all along why not use them before? Better yet, if they know Hector is going to eventually run out of juice, and he doesn’t seem to hold a charge all that long, why not simply shut down the station’s power until he drops from lack of electricity then but his body up and bury it somewhere outside?
In chess, where this climax draws all its emotional resonance, when you sacrifice a piece it’s specifically to improve your position on the board, and in most cases, take a better piece from your enemy in the immediate aftermath. Now sacrificing a piece in chess is a calculated move after other moves are exhausted or it opens the best possible avenue to rapid victory.
So using that as a model, why would Adam sacrifice himself if he didn’t have to? That isn’ t good chess, that’s stupid-chess.
Okay, cut to a terrible space ship model where Alex is peering out the window at Earth, her new home.
End film, build giant killer robot, turn loose in house, and wait for the fun to begin.
I have the Pioneer DVD which presents the film in full-frame without a single extra feature other than chapter search. But I only paid seven bucks for it so complaining is probably meaningless, and considering Saturn 3 is on cable almost every week nowadays, I could have very easily spent the seven bucks on something better.