Thursday, May 6, 2010

SATURN 3 (1980)

In 1977, high off a starring-role in a hit television show, Farrah Fawcett-Majors made what seems in hindsight to be a concentrated effort to destroy her career. Eager to deny tabloid accusations that her then-husband Lee Majors had demanded she leave Charlie’s Angels to save their marriage, Farrah’s first and most obviously-detrimental move, motivated by a desire to “broaden her acting opportunities”, was to star in a comedy-thriller with under-rated-even-then Jeff Bridges called Somebody Killed Her Husband. So poorly-received was this movie that critics made the inevitable jokes to reflect the above, namely referring to the movie in reviews as “Somebody Killed Her Career”. Eager to reverse this change in fortunes Fawcett met with producers at Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment to discuss a movie that should capitalize on a science-fiction/horror movie that had swept the world, namely, Ridley Scott’s Alien. The movie pitched to her would star veteran superstar Kirk Douglas, fierce “new blood” actor Harvey Keitel, with a script from literary darling Martin Amis, and would mark the directorial debut of acclaimed production designer John Barry. The movie: Saturn 3. The results: several Golden Raspberry awards and a return to Charlie’s Angels.

One of the most notorious misfires in science-fiction history, nearly every aspect of Saturn 3 inspires head-shaking. Telling a basic three-person story, Saturn 3 begins with the senseless murder of a starship captain about to embark on a mission to the third moon of Saturn, where a pair of scientists are farming food to replenish an overpopulated Earth. 

Alex and Adam (Fawcett and Douglas) are the only humans on the platform, their every need seen to by motorized salt and pepper shaker-shaped robots, and Adam’s every need seen to by Alex. Born on Saturn 3, Alex has never been to Earth and, therefore, is unaware that men her age exist. Adam, for his part, nearly thirty-years her senior, seems on the verge of a happy dance every time Alex is around. They sleep together, shower together, converse together. He reads to her phonetically and she irons him nightly.

The murderer, Benson, obviously evil because he’s played by Harvey Keitel, assumes the guise of Captain James and arrives on the space station with more luggage than Imelda Marcos. He’s brought with him the “first of the demigod series” of android, and he assembles the various parts into a robot named “Hector”, which looks to be a life-sized “Visible Man” model with a Luxor Jr. desk lamp for a head. Benson and Hector are there to get the project running at full efficiency. (People on Earth couldn’t care less that a sextegenarian is getting it on with his hot space muffin—they’re hungry and dying, dammit! Stop repopulating like rabbits and feed us!) So advanced is Hector that he will make one of them “obsolete”. The problem is that Hector is fueled by Benson’s brainwaves—and even some of his brain tissue!—and since Benson’s utterly psychotic and immediately fixated on Alex, so, ergo, is Hector. This spells trouble first for the couple’s pet dog and later for the couple. And even later for Benson. By the time the android tears off Benson’s face and wears it as a mask, ala C-3PO in Hannibal Lecter mode, you’re scarely aware that an hour of screentime has just whizzed by!

Actually, you are more than aware of the running time. At this point, you should be able to feel your hair grow. Within minutes of meeting Alex and Adam, you know exactly how the movie is going to end, unless, of course, you’ve never seen a movie before, in which case, god bless and have a blast. You’re also painfully aware of the clumsy “Adam & Eve & Harvey Keitel as the Serpent in Space” allegory, as well some Greek mythological thematics regarding Hector thrown in for good measure. Of course, most of you are only stopping by to catch some brief Farrah nudity and found yourself clawing your eyes out after glimpsing Douglas in the raw after one dirty trick. If you survive to the credit roll, you’ll wonder how Fawcett ever managed to recover.

All hyperbole aside, Saturn 3 isn’t that bad. As a science fiction movie, it’s no worse than the b-movie space operas that came before or since. It’s all meant as eye candy and if it was ever destined to be anything loftier, those goals were left behind long before the cameras rolled. That’s the real crime, of course; it never once tries to be better.

There’s plenty of blame to be shared—Barry and Douglas had a falling out early in production and the director stepped down, replaced by producer Stanley Donen, who was best-known for a little thing I like to call Singin’ in the Rain, or “One of the Best Musicals Ever Made”. However, Donen had also directed one of the best non-Hitchcock Hitchcock movies, Charade, so the movie should still have been in good hands. But the lackluster pace is proof that the new director had little to no interest in the finished project. What’s worse, he couldn’t stand Keitel’s Bronx accent and had him completely dubbed by a disinterested Roy Dotrice. Even the score by the great Elmer Bernstein seems bored by the film, with key themes repeated over and over but fading into the background as much as it can.

Douglas is completely miscast as Adam and that’s obvious from his first scene. Overdoing his charming hamminess, Kirk comes off like a doddering degenerate, leering at Fawcett’s barely-clad body and looking quite stiff in some of the action set pieces. The May-December romance is initially interesting, but becomes creepy almost immediately.

While it’s tempting to place the rest of the blame at Fawcett’s feet but to be perfectly honest, she’s given nothing to do. Her motivation is strictly from the Jayne Mansfield school, obviously instructed to “stand there and look sexy”. Her Alex is a wide-eyed waif in over her mostly-empty head and her sole existence is to provide an award for which the alpha males compete. To prove just how non-existent is her role is as an actual woman, one need look no further than the “Hector” subplot. Fueled by Benson’s lust for Alex, Hector wants her as well and will kill to have her (for what, exactly, it’s never made plain as Hector seems to be unaware that he’s lacking genitalia). So even the machines want to have sex with her! Alex, and by inevitable extension, Farrah, is reduced to the ultimate object. And at no point is she given an opportunity to step beyond this role. Every situation ends with a male required to rescue her. Alex takes no action. She’s merely the trophy, no more active in this game of “Capture the Flag” than the flag would be. While this is by no means surprising, given the push-pull battle feminism had with the rest of society, it’s still unfortunate, particularly when you consider that Fawcett was a shrewd businesswoman in real life (she chose the image used for the famous poster that decorated every teenage boy’s wall between 1977 and 1980). Of course, she did establish herself as a “serious” actress with Extremities, but that was still many years to come.

If Amis’ script is using this misogyny in irony—although given his treatment of heroines in the majority of his novels, this is unlikely—that aspect is utterly lost. And unless you’re captivated by the scenery (the ship’s interior is impressive, as are the functional space suit costumes) or the now-quaint special effects, you’re left with eighty minutes of two men pissing on each other’s legs followed by a duel with a plastic mannequin robot. Opportunities are wasted from minute one and the disintegration is almost hypnotic.

Though the DVD is out of print, a television cut of Saturn 3 (minus the few frames of nudity) does pop up on cable every now and then. There’s even a version almost ten minutes longer than the theatrical release, with some additional much-needed inane banter that does nothing to fill in the holes (What is Benson’s intention? What is Hector’s actual function?). So if you’re a real glutton for punishment, wait for the latter to run on SyFy. If you do, you deserve it. 


  1. Great review! I was surprised you failed to mention all the Kirk Douglas nudity! I'm so tired of this old geezer showing his ass off each chance he gets.

  2. Nice writeup... this movie is infamous for post-production tampering (including the Bernstein score... a lot of it didn't make the final cut), and the removal of scenes that made more sense of the story.

    Martin Amis' novel MONEY was directly inspired by the making of this.