by Jack Sommersby
No, it's not "Alien" or "Star Trek 2," but it's sort of the thing camp classics are made out of.You don't have to be a little bit nuts to enjoy Saturn 3, but it helps. Trashy, incoherent, downright abysmal at times, it has a dissociated quality to it that keeps you observing its happenstances from an emotional distance -- you're kept too busy spotting all of the inconsistencies rather than actually sinking into the story's goings-on. While this most certainly isn't the best quality for an intended sci-fi/horror piece to be adorned with, it manages to work up something of an alluring charm. Saturn 3 is R-rated, grindingly unpleasant, and fairly gory at times, which pretty much canceled out its chances for a widespread audience back in 1980. Still, taking into consideration the film's undeniable violent context and sexual innuendo, the filmmakers seem too docile in their intentions, afraid of veering too far into the grotesque and kinky, which hurts its overall form -- you don't quite know how to respond to it, because its parameters haven't been defined well enough.
"A Colorfully Enetretaining Piece of Sci-fi Trash"
We're first introduced to a most disagreeable chap named Benson (played by Harvey Keitel), who, in the very first sequence, kills a pilot at a space station, commandeers his ship, and lands at a research outpost on Saturn. There, the only two inhabitants, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett), who are scientists but also lovers, await. Adam, who's much older than Alex, prefers the isolation here, while the beautiful Alex, who's never set foot on Earth, is a bit more adventuresome -- she welcomes the visitor's presence as, well, something different. Benson, who's assumed the dead man's identity, is presumed to be there to work on a project that will supposedly benefit Adam and Alex; however, he has (duh!) more sinister plans up both sleeves.
The film takes its time in laying out the physical layout and intricacies of the outpost -- the tube-like corridors, the spacey living quarters, a racketball court, garden and pool, all the makings of one of those high-priced spa retreats you usually have to travel upstate to enjoy -- and it's easy to see why Adam and Alex live there so agreeably, and why Adam, a cynic who had it with the trials and tribulations of Earth, has no wishes to leave, with his fear that Alex might find someone younger and more attractive on Earth playing a factor in this, too. Benson, a demented psychopath, upsets and subsequently wrecks havoc upon this admittedly peaceful place. (That the names Adam and Alex bring to mind Adam and Eve, and the outpost is representative of Eden isn't lost on the viewer.)
Benson, himself a brilliant scientist, has come here to test out a most unusual creation: an eight-foot-tall robot named Hector (no, I didn't make that up) that's not only incredibly strong but intellectually resilient -- an actual human brain is built into it, which Benson himself has control over. At first, Adam is skeptical and wary over the moral implications of it all, while Alex is somewhat receptive to it; but even Adam can't help but be intrigued by Hector's amazing abilities. Plugged into the outpost's mainframe, it can operate just about anything, and it's quick and powerful and amazingly lithe when necessary -- a scene where it plucks a live metal chip from Alex's eye is harrowing. However, we know from that opening sequence that Benson is up to no good, and truth be told, it doesn't take long for all hell to break loose.
Benson, brimming with machismo, assumes Alex is hungering for someone younger, someone like him, and he doesn't tap dance around the subject, either ("You have a beautiful body. May I use it?"). It doesn't take long for Benson to start irking Adam's ire, and when Adam threatens to send Benson packing, he's beaten senseless and Alex is coerced. But fooling with Mother Nature comes full circle on Benson: Hector starts rejecting his orders, mutilates its master, and, sharing Benson's lust for Alex, stalks her throughout the complex. From here, what Saturn 3 basically boils down to is a cross between Donald Cammell's Demon Seed and Ridley Scott's Alien, with this horrifying creation bereft of a conscience turning the tables on the humans who created it.
The story schema is familiar and the plot points inane, but you'll likely to be surprised at just how acceptable the film manages to be, which is amazing considering that the director on board here is none other than veteran Stanley Donen, whose previous films include such light-hearted fare as Singing in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Donen was not the original assigned director: he took over for Billy Williams, a former production designer, who had a hand in the screenplay and was subsequently fired. Taking into account Williams' previous forte, it's little wonder that Saturn 3, despite its mediocre budget, looks great, with the imaginative sets managing to be both eye-catching and integral to the story at hand. But being that this was undoubtedly a troubled production at times, the film suffers from gaps in the plot and an awkwardness to the narrative. (Signs of last-minute tinkering during post-production in the editing room are evident, too.)
Benson's evil plot never really makes a whole lot of sense, and you can't help feeling that Adam could have probably saved the day a whole lot sooner had he followed plausible reasoning instead of iffy movie logic earmarked at prolonging the story. Furthermore, while Richard Marden's editing helps with its acuteness, poor Donen (whose first suspense/sci-fi film this is) is weak at sustaining suspense. When Alex is on her own, and Hector's out there lurking around dark corners, the audiences' nerves need to be jangled, but the execution seems stalled -- right when the tension needs to be brimming to the max, Donen severs it by cutting to something incidental, like Alex discovering something we've already been made privy to a few scenes back. Too often, we're given time to ponder over the many opportunities Donen just isn't capitalizing on.
Still, in accepting it on its own limited terms, Saturn 3 grips, and despite Donen's hit-and-miss handling, a fair amount of decent scares are elicited. Added to this, there's a neat kinky air to it all that makes it a no-no for kiddies but deliciously naughty for adults. Neither Adam, Alex, nor Benson hides their sexual appetite, and it's refreshing in seeing characters in a sci-fi pic not being deprived of their rightful libidos; instead of coming off as cardboard cut-outs of the strictly noble or evil type, they're made out to be driven, flawed, and identifiable. Are they memorable? No; but they're not stick figures, either. (See the the new Star Wars and Star Trek sequels for that.) And, yes, there is nudity, but not as much as one would hope for.
To be clear, there isn't a full-fledged sex scene to be had, but you do get Farrah Fawcett trouncing around in tight running clothes, short-shorts, and a variety of low-cut nighties -- not to mention a not-bad shot of her left breast. (For those who care, Kirk Douglas bares his bony butt.) Yet Donen nonetheless seems indifferent to this sort of thing, as if he displayed the bare minimum to appease the studio heads but saw himself as too refined, too tasteful to follow through on the insinuated kinkiness from earlier on, so the film's tone seems a bit off. Roger Vadim's Barbarella (with Jane Fonda), being released in the late '60s, had an excuse for pulling back; Saturn 3, made in the 80s, didn't. (The 1982 Roger Corman-produced Forbidden World was a much more satisfying cinematic fusion of violence and sex.)
And I haven't even touched on the terrible dubbing of Harvey Keitel's voice. Obviously, Keitel's unmistakable Brooklynese didn't end up meshing too well with the overall piece (a debit bestowed upon his role as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ), so a British actor was hired to dub his lines, and the result, if you've seen even one of Keitel's "streetwise" performances, is uproarious. Whenever Benson tries to be menacing, your attention keeps being drawn to that foreign, overenunciative accent, which, of course, makes him more foolish than imposing -- it were as if Keitel had laryngitis during the shooting yet was instructed to mouth his words, while a Brit was throwing his voice from behind the camera. However, clad mostly in black and sporting a ridiculous-looking ponytail, Keitel isn't bad; his conviction in what he's doing outweighs the dubbing's built-in negatives. As for Douglas, he's game and stoic, while Fawcett, having little to do except scream, run away and look pretty, is appealing and, for the most part, solid.
Saturn 3 is really no big deal, and it emerges as one of those potentials that might have been more successful had Billy Williams been allowed to stay on board and carry out his vision. Based on what's on display here, his writing wasn't exactly all that great, but it was probably tinkered with by other hands and at least suggests a pulpier narrative than Stanley Donen was able to deliver. I'm not asking you to go into it expecting a classic -- or even anything particularly good, for that matter -- but as an entertainment fitting for group viewings and a drunken Saturday night when expectations are low and your state of apprehension is high. Saturn 3 is acceptable-enough even if it doesn't fully sate.Just a mere shot of a Farrah Fawcett boob is better than not a one, right?
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originally posted: 12/20/02 03:28:13