If I ever wanted to make some easy money by extorting a famous actor, I think the best way would be to walk up to Harvey Keitel in a crowded room and whisper, “Give me a million bucks or I tell everyone you were in Saturn 3.”
This 1980 SF(R) thriller was obviously made to cash in on the incredible popularity of Star Wars (1977), but ended up resembling something with post-production values of a newish Dr. Who episode; that is, appalling. This was probably because all the sets and effects were created and supervised by the British, this being a joint UK-US production. And it shows.
The writer, Martin Amis, wrote the screenplay from a story by John Barry, who had the best of intentions:
In Saturn 3 the science considerations are all responsible. People don’t do anything that isn’t possible. It’s very much about real people. It’s a love story, a story about contemporary relationships set two centuries ahead.
Martin Amis might not be such a well-known name now but, from the mid-70s through to the 90s, he was a Big Cheese, twice listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and, according to the British newspaper The Times, named as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Later, he described his credit on Saturn 3 as a “debit”: “You get paid a whack but you earn it over and over in work and humiliation,” is what he said, according to The Independent. Despite this (or maybe to glean more humiliation), Amis went on to make more money off the film by writing “Money”, a 1984 novel that’s based on his experience writing the Saturn 3 scipt. According to Wikipedia:
The actors…all have some kind of emotional issue[s]… the strict Christian Spunk Davis (whose name is intentionally unfortunate) is asked to play a drugs pusher; the ageing hardman Lorne Guyland has to be physically assaulted; the motherly Caduta Massi, who is insecure about her body, is asked to appear in a sex scene with Lorne, whom she detests…The character of Lorne Guyland was based on the star of the film, Kirk Douglas.
Doesn’t that give you the urge to go out and hunt down a second-hand copy of Money? It does me. Much more exciting than the actual movie and we’re still only on the writer credits! But let’s move onto the stars.
Farrah Fawcett is another name that has slowly sunk into the ocean of time. In 1980, she already had Charlie’s Angels under her belt, sporting a blonde “blown back” look that all the teenage girls at the time tried to copy. (Not me, I’ve always had short hair, but I certainly noticed it among my peers.) In watching an old interview with her on the Johnny Carson Show, I’m dismayed to note that the irritating breathy way she spoke on Saturn 3 is actually her natural voice, but what she said about the film is interesting:
The title of [the movie] before we finished… was “The Helper”. And it was very interesting. It was about a…manufactured robot who fell in love because he felt the emotions of the man who had made him… It was very interesting, the script, before we started, and then I don’t know what happened.
You can watch the entire clip here.
Kirk Douglas was the main lead, playing the role of…well, I don’t quite know. Cranky Old Man Who Thinks He’s In A Western, I suppose. And, of course, he must have a young woman to “mentor”; someone who can’t see anyone but him; a youthful prop to a body visibly aged. (One of the reasons that I wrote Her Scandalous Affair was as a flip to this older man/young woman trope.) But I misspoke. Kirk Douglas wasn’t just “older”. At the time of filming, he was sixty-four! (“Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/…”)
If everyone at the time knew who Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas were, the same couldn’t be said of Harvey Keitel. He had an amazing sixteen film credits before Saturn 3, but was still only well-known among his native New York actor circles. (He continued roughly in this fashion until his break-out role as “Mr. White” in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs twelve years later (1992). So if you’re a struggling mid-list author, hang in there!)
Even from the early days, Keitel never liked passive roles, one reason he was swapped out of Apocalypse Now and replaced with Martin Sheen. He was more of a “Doing Things” kind of actor, who liked “Doing Things” kinda characters. And so we come to Saturn 3.
But what’s the film about, you ask? Here’s IMDb’s succinct abstract:
Two lovers stationed at a remote base in the asteroid fields of Saturn are intruded upon by a retentive technocrat from Earth and his charge: a malevolent 8-ft robot.
And the rest of the movie consists of either sex scenes between Douglas and Fawcett, stilted robotic dialogue from Keitel, and a robot (Hector) that either moves at a snail’s pace or Usain Bolt speed.
The Saturn 3 base is supposed to be growing food for an overcrowded Earth, but no work actually appears to occur. Lots of bonking, but no actual raising-crops-for-feeding-the-masses. Adam (Douglas) is obviously trying to recapture lost youth (a direct mirror of Douglas himself at this point in his career, from what I’ve read), and Alex (Fawcett) is little more than a wind-up doll, unable to even flee down a corridor without a male holding her hand.
Benson (Keitel), the commander in charge of the robot, was initially grounded due to mental instability, but he disregards orders to stand down, conveniently kills a colleague (doesn’t every accommodation unit contain a single door opening out onto the vacuum of space?), and hightails it to Saturn 3 on his dead colleague’s mission. As a disobedient, mentally imbalanced murderer, why doesn’t he run away instead? Who the hell knows!
Once on the Saturn 3 base, he (of course) falls in lust with Alex, and the plot devolves to two dogs snarling over a bone, with the novel addition of a robot that also slavers over Alex because it has been imprinted with Benson’s thoughts and, therefore, Benson’s lust for Alex. Loose the testosterone and let the carnage begin!
In the end, everyone (even the dog…yes, there’s a scruffy little terrier in it) dies, leaving Alex on a space cruiser heading for Earth.
This film is every bit as bad as you think. Maybe if it had been released before Star Wars, it may have stood a chance. After all, it did have an 8-foot robot, some nice tunnel shots, unintentional comedy and a 2001: A Space Odyssey-derivative soundtrack. But, next to Lucas’ trailblazing gem (and, whatever we may think of George Lucas’ directorial talents now, Star Wars was a solar flare of innovative energy back then), Saturn 3 was lucky to splutter before dying out completely.
In fact, as I’ve discovered when digging into this film, the backstory is a magnitude more interesting and dramatic than the film itself.
As an SFR, Saturn 3 fails in everything except for one concept: the imprinting of a human’s strong emotions on an almost-indestructible AI robot. Unfortunately, the chance is lost to make more of this as the film devolves into the usual yawn-inducing clichés.
For an entertaining read into the backstory of the film (including why Keitel sounds so robotic), go to Greg Moss’ excellent site Saturn3MakingOf. Without him, this review would have been little more than a shell.
Sets – 3 / 5
Robot – 3 / 5
Plot – 2 / 5 (and I’m only giving the extra point because of the robot)
Acting – 1 / 5
Sexism – 5 / 5
Because of what might have been, a reboot might be in order—and I’d watch it!—although judging by the thin cloth that masquerades as the plot of a more recent SFR film, Jupiter, Ascending, I could be wishing for too much.