In 1977, Star Wars proved to a stunned and disbelieving industry that science fiction films could yet be profitable. Wildly profitable, in fact. In their zeal to cash in on the popularity of George Lucas's film, producers started scrambling for new projects that resembled it, in what can only be described as an attack of the clones. Some of these were low-budget knock-offs, hoping to cash in on sci-fi's newfound respectability; others were big-budget productions, their budgets inflated by studios hoping to find the next blockbuster hit.
The further success of Alien in 1979 helped ensure that 1980's Saturn 3, financed by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment, was no low-budget hack job.
Saturn 3 was scheduled to be the directorial debut of John Barry, the enormously talented production designer of Star Wars (not to be confused with the composer of the same name, who was working on another big-budget ITC project, Raise the Titanic!, at the time. It's a shame, really: it would have been fun having John Barry score a John Barry film). The movie's producer was Stanley Donen, director of Singin' in the Rain and Charade, who had worked with Barry on the films Lucky Lady and The Little Prince. Barry's original story was turned into a screenplay by the famous English novelist Martin Amis. The movie's small cast featured Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel, while the music was provided by the eminent film composer Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird, Ghostbusters). All in all, Saturn 3 was set up with an impressive pedigree: Fangoria #5 previewed it as its cover feature (over John Carpenter's The Fog), and speculated it might be "a mega-hit of Alien proportions".
But if you're familiar with the ways Bad Movies get made, chances are your toes are beginning to curl as you read this list. It's generally not a good sign when a movie assembles a group of Big Names that have little or nothing to do with its genre. Mention Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Elaine May in the same breath and it sounds as though you've got the makings of a decent movie; follow the cast list with the words "screwball musical comedy" and the effect is altogether different. Suggest John Travolta and Lily Tomlin at the height of their early careers and you might expect comedy gold... cast them as romantic leads in a soapy melodrama, and you're sunk.
In fact, Saturn 3 would have benefitted from a little less star power. After all, what was the original Star Wars but a B-movie writ large? It wasn't until much later that scholars and philosophers began hallucinating discussing inner meanings in George Lucas's movies... Lucas certainly didn't start by bringing in Joseph Campbell for screenplay advice. If audiences loved "A New Hope", it wasn't because of the participation of the stars who were Big Names at the time (Alec Guinness? James Earl Jones? Peter Cushing?) They loved it because it was fun — it didn't take itself particularly seriously, and it was ideally cast... it made stars of its actors by giving them roles they were suited for.
You certainly can't say the same about Saturn 3.
It's not that anybody in Saturn 3 is particularly awful (with the exception of whomever did the outer-space effects, which are lousy). They're just completely out-of-place. When you see Kirk Douglas in (or thoroughly out of) a space suit, you never once forget that he's the legendary Hollywood mainstay KIRK DOUGLAS... and that he's slumming. After all, this is the guy who's listed as #17 in the AFI's list of the greatest movie actors of all time: what is he doing here, being chased down corridors by a giant robot — and why is he naked? On the other hand, Farrah Fawcett is never once allowed to be anything other than the stereotypical Farrah Fawcett she was expected to be in the late 1970's. She's given a slightly more substantial role than the one she was given in 1976's Logan's Run, at least if we're counting the amount of exposed skin... but really: how much progress was that? As for Harvey Keitel: as soon as he opens his mouth, we realize his distinctive voice has been overdubbed by a different actor (Roy Dotrice from "Space 1999"). What, then, was the point of hiring him?
For that matter, what was the point of hiring John Barry to direct a major motion picture, when he'd never done anything of the kind before? Within the first few weeks, Barry had backed out of the project, and Stanley Donen took his place. Yes, the production designer of Star Wars was replaced by the director of Damn Yankees! and Funny Face on a big-budget sci-fi flick.
And finally, if you've ever read anything by Martin Amis you may wonder a.) why the hell they'd hire such a scathingly bleak writer as the author of "Dead Babies" to script an escapist sci-fi film in the first place, and b.) what the hell they did to his screenplay to end up with something as bland as this.
The end result, though professionally done, seems like a bad fit for the talents of everybody involved.
The movie begins with the title credits playing out in total silence — a nice, ominous touch that suggests the dead quiet of space. The film's title assembles itself out of geometrical fragments, which is a technique I seem to remember having seen in another menace-in-space movie of the same vintage... though this may be coincidence.
The action commences with a really terrible matte painting of the planet Saturn. Into the frame from above comes an Enormous Space Ship, which takes a very long time to pass over the audience's heads. No coincidence here: you can't possibly miss the source of this image, though Saturn 3 tries to assert its independence by having the leading edge of the ship appear from the top left corner instead of the center of the screen. Kudos to the production designer, at least, for recognizing that gigantic spacecraft need not be aerodynamic.
Of course, the point of the opening shot in (ahem) that other movie was to compare the tiny rebel ship with the monstrous vastness of the Imperial destroyer, and from this to immediately understand the dynamics of the rebellion. There's no such meaning or understanding to be gleaned from the opening of Saturn 3. It's true, we're about to be given a glimpse of a future society with a taste for the monumental... but it's only a glimpse, and it has no bearing on the rest of the movie.
While we're on the subject of "references to familiar sci-fi films", let's discuss how the title cards' silence is finally broken. Elmer Bernstein's original soundtrack recording for Saturn 3 has become something of a collectors' item, because the music represents some of Bernstein's most atypical and forward-looking work. However, Stanley Donen didn't think it was appropriate, just as he hadn't thought Harvey Keitel's voice was appropriate. A large chunk of Bernstein's music was cut from the final film, to be replaced by more traditional cues. The music for Saturn 3's opening scene is probably the least interesting Bernstein provided: it sounds like the bastard child of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" — a.k.a. the Theme from 2001 — and Gustav Holst's "The Planets". The debt to Strauss is obvious from a comparison of the opening themes from both:
Suddenly we're inside that Enormous Space Ship, in some sort of launch pad, where a one-man pod is being prepared for lift-off. In spite of the babble of voices we hear on the soundtrack, nobody's visible on-screen... so it's impossible to get a sense of the scale of the place. Then a number of masked, space-suited crewmen show up — two dozen, I think — and we realize that this launch pad is huge, at least three times larger than I would have guessed. The group of technicians breaks up into two separate teams: half the group carries equipment to the pod in an orderly line, while the other twelve people form an evenly-spaced line in the background. Yes: half the team is there only there for decoration. There's something eerie and intimidating in this useless display of manpower...
Of course, since this is a Stanley Donen film,
you expect them to burst into song-and-dance...
The unease goes still deeper when we consider both the shape of the pod and the design of the technicians' helmets. There's something in both of them that suggests insects — flies, to be precise. Later, we will learn that the Earth of this era is an overcrowded dystopian hell. It isn't difficult to imagine why, in circumstances like that, the image of a fly might impress itself on the human imagination (though we might not want to think about it too carefully).
The pilot of the pod is late to arrive, for some reason. After the oddly ceremonial feel of the scene at the loading dock, Captain James's tardiness seems a little casual. In fact, James is alone in a locker room, sorting paperwork in his briefcase... and retrieving an enormous canister, which he leaves just outside his locker.
Wait: did I say he was alone? Not quite. There's another man in the locker room with him. Even though he's wearing one of those black, insectoid helmets, Capt. James immediately recognizes him as Vince Benson. Benson was one of the pilots considered for the current mission, but he'd failed the psychological test: he's considered too unstable for active duty. James attempts to sympathize, telling Benson he should be glad not to have to make the run to that godforsaken hole, Saturn 3.
Now, when you're talking to a man who's been relieved of his position for mental instability, it's probably not a good idea to bring the matter up in conversation. It's a much better idea to wonder why he's fully dressed in his space-flight gear... especially when he's strapping himself in next to the emergency decompression switch. And when he starts fiddling with the emergency decompression switch, it's probably a good idea to run.
But James does not run. He keeps talking1
1. His last words: "What the HAL?" Cute., and when the ceiling of the locker room pops open, James is sucked out into space.
This scene raises all sorts of questions, of which the most obvious is this: why is there an emergency decompression switch in the locker room? There's an obvious answer to this obvious question: Alien had come out in 1979, so it would only make sense that every room in a 1980 space station would be equipped with a blow-out door... in case of xenomorph contamination, the only thing to do is to open the ship to space and hope for the best (this might also explain why there is only one seat-belt present, to keep somebody in when the air goes out: it's reserved for the Final Girl).
Still, as ludicrous as it seems to have an easily-opened death trap in a men's locker room, Capt. James is wearing his space suit. And it's not as though there was nothing between the open room and the air lock doors. In fact, there are cables strung across the ceiling, which should get in the way of anything rising toward the gap — the camera has called special attention to them. Those cables should be enough to hold him back, until somebody notices the drop in pressure and comes to his rescue. Right?
(ahem) Well... actually, Capt. James does come into contact with these cables. But for some reason, instead of restraining him, they cause him to break apart into pieces, as though he were made of fine porcelain.
I'm a little teapot, short and, erm...
If you look carefully, though, you'll notice that the large metal canister James was preparing stays solidly in place. Once the room re-pressurizes, Benson grabs the canister and runs off to the pod platform, where he pretends to be Capt. James — the late Capt. James, ha-ha — and takes off for Saturn 3.
So to recap: there's a device, operated by a single unprotected switch, that voids the air in the locker room. This device can be used as a murder weapon by a dangerously unbalanced man, whom everybody knows to be unbalanced (even the victim, who allows himself to be caught alone with him in the room containing the device); and not only will nobody notice the deadly device has been used — and that the space station's precious oxygen supply has been unexpectedly depleted — but the murderer will then simply be able to stroll out of the locker room and take the dead man's place, without a single question being asked. Capt. James recognized Benson immediately, in spite of his helmet and space suit... but nobody else does.
OK. I'll buy all that.
But what I don't understand is... why? Why did he do it? Oh, sure: I know that the story demands it. But aside from narrative convenience, I'd like to know what it is about the mission to Saturn 3 that has led Benson to murder. Is it simply the fact that he's been deemed unfit for service? If so, what does he expect will happen to him when he comes back from this tedious, routine mission?
Anyway, Benson-disguised-as-James pilots his fly-shaped pod away from the gigantic space station, through the rings of Saturn, and off to Saturn 3 2
2. The movie has drawn some criticism for having Benson pilot his tiny, fragile-looking craft through the rocky rings, when he could have charted a much safer course around them. Actually, I don't see how you could make a movie about Saturn and not have somebody fly through the rings at some point; but you can't deny that the special effect is pretty primitive and unconvincing. It was obviously filmed in a water tank with some mirrors: you can see the meniscus at the top of the screen in one shot, and it's obvious when the camera dips beneath the water's surface in another..
The base on Saturn 3 is an experimental agricultural outpost. They've been trying to grow crops to feed the Earth's huge and unsustainable human population. Unfortunately, Saturn 3's production has fallen behind schedule, and James/Benson has been sent to fix the problem.
The main reason Saturn 3 has lagged in its production is that the people running the project seem much less concerned with the plight of the Earth than they are with their own comfort. You might think that agriculture in space would be an arduous, even dangerous task — at least as much as agriculture on Earth. But Saturn 3 is manned by only two people — that's right: two people to feed a whole starving planet — and those two are having the time of their lives. Saturn 3 may have the reputation of being the ass-end of the universe; but its crew have made the station their own little paradise, lush and green and free from the crushing mass of humanity.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that this futuristic Garden of Eden is the home of Adam (Kirk Douglas). Adam's companion (in every sense of the word) is Alex — and before I get angry letters from Tony Perkins of the (Bates) Family Research Center screaming that it's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Alex, let me point out that Alex is a woman (played by Farrah Fawcett).
A quick aside on space-based agriculture:
I understand that, in the universe of Saturn 3, conditions on Earth have deteriorated to the point where the planet can no longer feed itself. But how on Earth is it sensible to put farms on a moon of Saturn? Why grow ensalada on Enceladus?
Well, as it turns out, the idea may not be as crazy as it seems.
It's true, if you want to feed the Earth from space, there's a little matter of freshness to consider... even assuming you have the technology to get to Saturn and back, and regardless of the fuel costs, it's still a long way back to Earth. By the time your shipment reaches its destination, your arugula's going to be a tad wilted.
But let's just assume that somewhere in the 24th-and-a-half century it makes economic sense to do hydroponics somewhere — anywhere — in space. You're going to need two things in abundance: water and sunlight. Sunlight will be in short supply on the moons of Saturn, since Saturn is 9 times as distant from the sun as the Earth. That's OK, though, as artificial sunlight should be pretty easy to provide — just ask a pot farmer for advice. The real problem is water: Earth has plenty, but water is heavy and difficult to send into space. I suppose you could always make your own H2O, provided you had a good source of hydrogen and oxygen (and a good, strong, blast-proof facility, since the reaction would have to be pretty violent), but that seems awfully inconvenient.
Here's the fun part, though: the real "Saturn III" — note the Roman numerals — is a mid-sized moon named Tethys... and it's thought that Tethys is mostly composed of water ice. A hydroponics farm on Tethys would still be extremely costly, for obvious reasons... but you would have an abundant source of water.
Now then: where was I?
Oh, yes: Adam and Alex. In this version of the Garden of Eden, Adam is really anti-Adam. In the Bible, Adam was the first man and the father of the human race... but this Adam has reached his Eden not only at the end of his own life — he's nearing the age when the regulations call for him to "abort", i.e., be euthanized — but also at what he feels to be the end of human history. Instead of being flung out of paradise to begin the story of mankind, Adam has taken his mate back to paradise, abandoning the Earth to live the rest of his life in his Eden (and categorically not to procreate).
There's something disturbing about the relationship between Adam and Alex. It's not really the May-December nature of the relationship that's troubling (although in Douglas's case, it's December of the following year). The odd part is that Adam seems to have kept Alex in isolation from the rest of humanity: she was born in space, has never been to Earth, and seems to have spent her formative years in Adam's company (if not care). Adam is a sort of Parent with Benefits... and if that wasn't cringeworthy enough, if we're continuing the Biblical metaphor then Adam is also putting himself in the place of God: in his desire to preserve her innocence, he's attempting to keep Alex/Eve away from that oh-so-dangerous fruit tree.
But into Adam's rebuilt Eden comes the serpent, in the form of Benson/James (for the sake of clarity, I'll just refer to him as Benson from now on).
Benson has brought with him the stench of Earthly corruption — exactly what Adam's been trying to avoid. Benson seems surprised to find out that Alex is a woman, and a staggeringly beautiful woman at that (and, considering that a shuttle pilot later refers to Alex as his "favorite space girl" [euurgh], this seems to be common knowledge... so why exactly was Benson so anxious to come to Saturn 3 again?). Once he sees her, he immediately wants to have sex with her. OK, OK, so it's him and every other post-adolescent of the 1970's... but the way he approaches Alex is both an indicator of social conditions back on Earth, and our first suggestion that Martin Amis was involved in the project: "You have a great body," he says. "May I use it?"
Alex demurs. After all, Benson is hardly even old enough to be her father. Benson points out that on Earth, her refusal would be a punishable offense (we're given to understand that on the overcrowded planet, privacy of the sort enjoyed by Adam and Alex is considered a decadent luxury; but I'm not sure I believe that. Would such desperate overcrowding really result in that kind of laxity about sex? Somehow I doubt it. In fact, I think all sexual relations would become a matter of the strictest regulation).
Benson the serpent has also brought a more tangible apple with him into the Garden. Like most of his contemporary Earthlings — more so, considering his mental instability — Benson relies on drugs to get him through the days... drugs to help him sleep, drugs to keep him awake, drugs to regulate his thoughts... Adam has kept the very existence of such drugs from Alex, so when Benson offers her a handful of red delicious — excuse me; "blue dreamers", Alex is curiously tempted to try them.
But the bitterest fruit from Benson's Tree of Knowledge is intended for Adam himself. Remember the canister? Well, that, and a number of cases packed into that tiny probe, contains Earth's solution to Saturn 3's productivity problem. Inside those containers are the parts for a robot — the first of the new Demigod series — which will first supplement and then replace one of the human workers at the agricultural station. It's immediately apparent which of the workers is going to be replaced, just as it's also apparent what the euphemism "replaced" really means.
And what a "replacement" this robot is! When he's assembled, he's an eight-foot mass of clanking metal in vaguely-human form, with pipes of red and blue fluid circulating like blood through a tangle of exposed pipes. It's not his sheer bulk or his armor-like plating that's most disturbing, though: it's the fact that this massive body is topped by a tiny little crane-mounted camera where the head should be. A pair of LEDs and some circuitry give the barest hint of a face. If you look up reviews of Saturn 3 online, you'll see that lots of people find his appearance frightening (especially those who saw Saturn 3 when they were young). However, I have always found the robot disturbing in a laughable way... of all the miscalculations in Saturn 3, I've always found the robot's tiny little head the thing that disappointed me most.
Have you noticed that I refer to the robot as "he"? There's a reason for that. The canister Benson's carried with him contains the robot's core: a long glass tube filled with cultured human brain tissue — cultured from the "unborn"3
3. Between this and the use of the term "abort" to describe the euthanizing of the old, I detect an agenda in the screenplay that seems to conflict with the image of the overpopulated Earth... anyway, proponents of stem-cell research may want to approach this movie forewarned.. The robot's brain is currently empty. It will be "programmed" by a direct link to Benson's brain. He'll take some time to achieve complete motor control over his enormously strong body; but eventually he will have the mind of a human being, while encased in a nearly-indestructible shell.
He even has a name: Hector.
Maybe if we hadn't known Martin Amis was involved in the production, we might have shrugged off the literary allusions here. But under the circumstances, it's impossible... we're drawn back to Homer. Why is "The Iliad" suddenly forcing its way into Genesis?
We've been told that Hector the robot is the first in the new Demigod series. But a demigod is a person who's half human and half god, and Homer's Hector — son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, both mortals — was not a demigod. You know who was one? Achilles. That's right: Achilles, the man who killed Hector and dragged his body around the walls of Troy... Achilles, the man who refused to return Hector's body to Priam, and who continued to abuse the corpse for a further twelve days (until the horrified gods stepped in and convinced him to stop)... Achilles, the man upon whose grave Hector's sister Polyxena was ritually slaughtered after Troy fell, to whose son Hector's wife was given as a concubine, and in whose memory Hector's infant son was tossed to his death from the walls of the city (guess who re-read The Trojan Women a few months ago?). Achilles, the destroyer of Hector's entire civilization... he was a demigod.
So, then: does anything about this robot inspire confidence?
Actually, there's another reason why they story might have decided to call its robot "Hector". During the siege of Troy, Achilles felt he'd been dishonored by Agamemnon, so he refused to lead his troops into battle. Hoping to rally the Achaeans, Achilles's friend Patroclus put on Achilles's armor before engaging the Trojans. Hector encountered Patroclus and, thinking he was Achilles, fought him and killed him. When Hector discovered the deception, he was a bit put out, to say the least; and he threatened to deny Patroclus his proper burial (and this is what prompted Achilles to dishonor his corpse later on). But Hector took Achilles's armor for himself, and that's what proved his undoing: not only did he lose the gods' favor by wearing another hero's armor, he also provoked Achilles's wrath (and Achilles was particularly famous for his wrath). And Achilles knew the spot where his old armor was weakest — its Achilles' heel, you might say — so he was able to slay Hector easily.
It's the idea of "borrowed armor" that gives robot Hector a tenuous connection to his ancient namesake. Hector's "borrowed armor" is his programming, which comes directly from Benson's brain4
4. guess you could also make the case that Benson taking James's place is a little reminiscent of Patroclus subbing for Achilles, but that's too strained a comparison even for me.. Unfortunately for Hector, Benson is a murderous psychopath. This means that all Benson's issues, from his frustrated desire for Alex, to his troubled (if deeply-buried) conscience over the killing of James, to the relative ease with which he polished off James in the first place... all those things are imprinted on Hector's tabula rasa brain... much to the robot's distress. Eventually Hector has a psychotic break and becomes Benson... and since there's already a Benson around on Saturn 3, he decides to do something Bensonian about his prototype/rival. And, of course, it's the robot's assumption of Benson's personality that leads to his eventual destruction.
But the "borrowed armor" theory makes sense only if you know in advance how the story of Saturn 3 ends. Why Earth Central wanted to call him "Hector", though, I still can't say... unless, that is, they're big fans of classic tragedy and saw the situation coming.
To all us non-crazy persons, Benson is obviously the worst possible candidate for programming Hector. His lust for Alex aside, Benson already seems half-robot himself. He speaks in short, clipped bursts with a minimum of inflection; his speech is exaggeratedly precise and not particularly idiomatic (e.g., he says "No taction contact!" instead of "Don't touch!"). When we're first introduced to him, we do not see his face 5
5. though there's a brief moment where the helmeted Benson mimes delight after the death of Capt. James, and this emotional reaction is jarringly out-of-character for the man we get to know later, and this reinforces the idea that Benson is not and does not want to be fully human. On the other hand, Hector is a robot who is forced to become human, through his conditioning by Benson.
There's a lot of potential in this setup for meaningful conflict... but that's not what we end up with. Hector goes from his "Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?" moment with Benson to full-on psychopathy without any transition. I haven't mentioned Sally the Dog in the plot — partly because I don't understand how the future society we've been told exists would allow Adam and Alex the luxury of a dog as a pet (imagine how much that adds to the cost of life support on a moon of Saturn!). But mainly, I'm not mentioning the dog because small animals in movies like this are always brutally dismembered somewhere around the middle of Act II. And that's what happens: for no particularly good reason, Hector tears poor Sally to bloody shreds... and that's the event that announces he's gone bananas.
It would have been better if we knew whether Benson was meant to be a mere psychopath, or a symptom of his time and his society: the description of dystopian Earth, the drugs, the hieratic ceremony of the pod launch, the oddly insect-like design of the pod... all these things suggest that Benson is meant as a symbol of the The Future — our future, our dehumanized and unpleasant future. But that's not the impression we get from our brief glimpse of Capt. James, who seems completely normal. And let's not forget that that same future society judged Benson to be crazy and unfit for duty.
It also would have been better if the screenplay had stuck to its Garden of Eden idea a little more closely. For example, when Adam decides to give in and share the apple one of Benson's blue dreamers with Eve Alex, there was originally supposed to be a trip sequence that followed, in which Adam dreamed of murdering Benson. The trip sequence was cut, but it would have served an important role in signaling the end of Eden. At one point, Adam does consider killing Benson by tossing him out an air lock, in an unwitting echo of Benson's actual behavior (so you see why Benson had to kill James in the opening? The story requires it!)... but he can't bring himself to do it. In fact, later on, when Benson is in danger of being killed by his own creation, Adam makes an effort to try to avoid rescuing him. He turns out to be unable to leave him. But I think it would have been more in line with the "Adam's fall" metaphor if the dream-sequence killing had been kept: it would have given an added shock to the moment when Adam finally does snap and attack Benson, just before Hector decides to take on the problem of surplus Benson-minds.
But why am I even bothering to think about high-level disappointments, when (to stick with the Eden schtick better than the movie does) there's still plenty of low-hanging fruit? Take, for example, the screenplay's inconsistent attitude toward robots. On the one hand, when Adam beats Hector in a game of chess, we're given that old canard about mechanical brains: they're insufficiently human to understand the concept of sacrifice. On the contrary, I should think: if a coolly logical robot brain were to conclude that the optimal course of action were to give up its own Queen... or even to self-destruct to prevent being check-mated... it would hardly hesitate to do so. But on the other hand, the screenplay also gives us a robot sufficiently "human" to be willfully cruel, jealous, and lustful... if he understands these emotions, why can't he understand the idea of sacrifice?
This brings us to another baffling point: what did Hector plan to do with Alex once he got her? I can understand (sort of) why you might want to give hormones or an endocrine system to a robot with an organic human brain; but I didn't notice they'd provided him with anything else, if you know what I mean. There's a moment when Hector dangles Alex at arms' length, off the ground (Benson is unable to get Hector to release her, but Alex eventually convinces him by asking him nicely to let her go...). It's certainly not pleasant to be dangled by an eight-foot robot; but you have to wonder how much further things would have gone, once Hector realized he'd pretty much reached the end of his mating repertoire. I'd imagine either he'd tear her to shreds (which I doubt he'd find terribly satisfying), or there'd be an embarrassing longueur, followed by a metallic cough and a binary approximation of "So, do you come here often?"
Then there's the odd design of the Saturn 3 station. At one point, Adam and Alex try to trick Hector by pulling out the supports under the floor and placing the thin layers of flooring down over nothing. The idea is that the heavy robot will step on the unsupported floor and plummet through, into the freezing liquid below. That's right: I said "freezing liquid below". The living quarters are only a few inches of removable panel away from the actual surface of Tethys, which has apparently been melted by the heat of the life support system. This suggests the whole station is floating on a mass of burbling slurry, which seems like very poor engineering. Yet in other scenes, there are tunnels of ductwork under the floors, through which Alex and Adam attempt to escape. What are those ducts even doing there? Aren't they surrounded by the ice water? Aren't they awfully uncomfortable?
And then, there's an absurd plot point involving Saturn 3's orbit. Adam and Alex find themselves unable to call for help because their moon has been eclipsed by Saturn... and the eclipse lasts for 21 days (Earth days, I assume). I can understand how the position of the enormous planet Saturn would affect transmissions to Earth. But... do you remember that great big space ship we saw in the opening? It can move. It's in orbit near Saturn; there's no reason why it couldn't position itself to receive and relay signals from Saturn 3. You'd think they'd have their logistics worked out better in The Future.
Also, there's a gruesome moment toward the end of the movie, when we find out Hector's assimilated more than just Benson's personality. He's also borrowed most of his head. This should have been the most shocking moment in the movie, but Donen doesn't handle it very well. He'd managed an incredibly skillful sequence earlier in the film — the infamous eye scene, in which Hector (whom we've previously seen inadvertently destroy a drink container because he couldn't judge his own strength) attempts to remove a tiny rock fragment from Alex's eyeball. Benson grabs her and forces her eye open, while the enormous lumbering robot stretches out his claw... it's a moment worthy of Lucio Fulci, though it ends differently than the similar scene in Zombi 2. But Donen does not bring the same degree of care to the later sequence. He seems to have dismissed it as a mere gross-out moment, beneath his full attention; not only are the build-up and the reveal far less effective, but there's no follow-on. Once the icky part's been shown, that's the end of it... though it would have made more sense if the ick factor had continued through the rest of the movie.
And thinking of heads, this brings me back to Hector's design. OK, OK, I get it: he's thinking with his Little Head. But I still think he looks ridiculous.
The filming of Saturn 3 did not go smoothly. John Barry was the movie's first casualty: he had never directed before, and soon found he was in over his head. Barry quit, and producer Donen stepped in instead. Barry never saw the final film: he died of meningitis shortly afterwards, while working as a production designer and second-unit director on The Empire Strikes Back.
Barry's original idea had been for a low-key, low-budget "Agatha Christie in space" type of movie, but after the success of Star Wars and Alien, Lord Grade wanted something bigger. Unfortunately, Lord Grade was about to become another casualty. Grade had committed to another Big Movie at the same time: the aforementioned Raise the Titanic!, which soon went seriously over-budget (Grade later commented it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic). But Star Wars notwithstanding, given the choice between science fiction and an action-packed spy thriller, Grade chose Raise the Titanic! as the sure-fire hit, and took a large chunk of money out of Saturn 3 to finish it.
Saturn 3 limped into theaters and did mediocre business, before The Empire Strikes Back came out 3 months later and wiped it off the map. Poor Raise the Titanic!, though, pulled in some two million dollars less than Saturn 3, and sank deeper than its namesake. It was the beginning of the end for Grade's career as a movie producer.
Next there was Martin Amis. Amis wasn't exactly thrilled with Saturn 3, either; but rather than become a victim of the film, he turned the tables and used his involvement in it as material for the novel "Money". The novel is subtitled "A Suicide Note", which should give you some idea of its tone (well... that, and the fact it was written by Martin Amis in the first place). One of the characters in "Money" is an aging film star who has fallen on hard times:
The aging movie star is also acutely distressed about growing older, and has a peculiar way of overcompensating:"He'll do anything now. Space opera, road movies, good-ole-boy stuff, TV specials. His agent straps him on the horse and out he rides. This is the first real part that's come his way for four — five years. He's crazy for it."
The pathetic figure of Lorne Guyland in "Money" was obviously a swipe at Kirk Douglas, though Douglas's on-set behavior wasn't nearly as extreme. Douglas had reached an odd point in his career: he'd been a legendarily handsome, robust and energetic leading man, but now that he'd reached his late 60's his options had become much more limited. As his IMDb biography states, "Into the 1970s Douglas wasn't as busy as previous years..." In fact, his last few movie roles had included Brian dePalma's uneven The Fury and Alberto de Martino's absurd Omen rip-off Holocaust 2000 — not his strongest vehicles — and he'd just recently played a human cartoon character in Hal Needham's The Villain6
6. ...albeit a cartoon character that ended up getting the girl!. So yeah; "not as busy..."
By this time, Douglas was pretty much incapable of giving a truly bad performance, but throughout Saturn 3 he just doesn't seem to be engaged in the role. It's as though he'd come to realize he was never going to get that damned OscarTM after all, and movies like this certainly weren't helping him get any closer. Still, it's hard not to like Kirk Douglas, even in a disappointing movie like Saturn 3. He's warm, he's charismatic, he's naked, he's... aaaiigh! For crying out loud, Kirk, put your clothes back on! Yes, it's true, he's remarkably well-preserved for a man of nearly 70, and I can understand his making one last Grand Gesture — letting it all hang out — before accepting defeat at the cruel hands of Time. But when there's more of Kirk on display than there is of Farrah Fawcett, then I'm sorry — that's too much of him at any age.
As for Farrah Fawcett... she was at a similarly bleak point in her career, but about to move in the opposite direction. Hollywood didn't expect much of Fawcett during the 1970's, because of her role as the reigning sex symbol of the times. Fawcett's pin-up poster hung in the bedrooms of millions upon millions of adolescents (and in the imaginations of millions more whose parents wouldn't let them hang up her poster... like me); and her screen appearances — her embarrassing cat-fight with Jenny Agutter in Logan's Run, for instance, or the mock-feminism of "Charlie's Angels" — weren't much more substantial than that two-dimensional poster had been. After she was menaced by a horny robot in Saturn 3, Fawcett had had enough: putting aside her earlier persona, she took on much more diverse and serious roles. And she was good in them. After Saturn 3, she played a battered wife who kills her husband 7
7. If the thought of Ms. Fawcett being groped by a robot seems too degrading and exploitative, just watch her in The Burning Bed, where she plays a woman dealing with the consequences of real-life abuse; or Extremities, where she proves much more resourceful in dealing with a flesh-and-blood attacker.... she played Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld... she played a child-murderer... even in the films that didn't turn out as well as they could have, she still demonstrated a range and depth that nobody expected from her in the previous decade. She would never again be as popular as she was in her pin-up days, but she showed the world that she had real acting chops, and deserved to be remembered for more than her appearance.
... which, to be fair, was spectacular.
Yet here's one of Saturn 3's bitterest ironies: though we laughed or groaned to see Kirk Douglas get naked with a girl half his age, it turns out Time was kinder to Douglas than it was to Farrah Fawcett. As I write this, in early 2012, Kirk Douglas is still alive, and revered as one of cinema's living legends. But in 2009, the most-desired woman of the seventies died of cancer. Here was a woman who struggled for years to regain her dignity, after being celebrated as a sex object... and in the end, she was betrayed by the very cells of her body — the body that had made her famous. And she was younger when she died than Kirk Douglas was, when he defiantly bared his bum in Saturn 3.