Happy 36th, Saturn 3

Dedicated to Gregory Moss and all the bad films that some of us love

Sometime back in 1980, or maybe 1981 (its over 30 years ago, anyway) I found a hardback copy of the Saturn 3 novelization in my local library. I knew of the film from reading mags like Fantastic Films and Starburst, and while I hadn’t seen the film, I knew from the reviews the film was pretty dire. Curious, I took the book out and read it, and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. It was an interesting piece of science fiction with a Frankenstein theme, about a robot going rogue on a distant science station near Saturn. It even had a surprisingly bleak (well, bittersweet, anyway) ending that I found quite poignant.

Some years later, I caught the film on its first network tv screening. Alas, the book that I remembered  was far better than the film.

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So here we are, decades later, and Saturn 3 has a very minor part in sci-fi film history, I’m sure it’s mostly been forgotten, rarely even turning up on late-night tv. But even films like Saturn 3 have fans; there’s certainly no shame in it- indeed, there are several bad/unpopular films that I really like, although I don’t count Saturn 3 among them. I don’t think anyone consciously makes a bad film, and it’s nice to think that all that effort spent on a bad film somehow gets rewarded by someone somewhere being a fan.

Fellow blogger Gregory Moss, whose opinions I value is a big fan of Saturn 3 and created a website about the film and its troubled history. Even people who love the film have to admit that Saturn 3 is one of those films where the behind the scenes story is actually more interesting and rewarding than the film itself. When a special blu ray edition was being planned in America, the discs producers hired Greg to record a commentary track for the disc. Smart move, really- a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan can give a better commentary track than a film’s producer or director, particularly if they’d rather forget the film completely than share in how they got everything so very wrong.

Unfortunately for me, the disc would be Region A, and here in the Region B UK I didn’t have a multi-region player.However, a few months ago Greg announced on his blog that a German label had licensed both the film and the American discs special features for a release in Region B-freindly Germany. I immediately ordered it; a handsome steelbook edition with a price that was actually quite reasonable. Saturn 3 is a film I would never ordinarily buy, and I’d rarely if ever have the urge to rewatch it, but I was really curious about Greg’s commentary track. Maybe there is something about a fellow geek’s love of a movie that gets other geeks eager to share in it, I don’t know. Maybe it was the nostalgic pull of a film more than 35 years old, a film from that other age that was my youth, a film as old as my teenage self feels distant.

Here’s a curious fact; Saturn 3 was released on February 15th, 1980. It shares my birthday (the day, not the year, you understand); so this year on the day that Saturn 3 celebrates its 36th birthday, I’m celebrating my 50th (as if anyone ever really celebrates being 50 years old). So happy 36th, Saturn 3.

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Films were different in 1980. Science fiction films especially so. Back in 1980, the shadow of Star Wars loomed large over science fiction films. It is nowhere more obvious that Saturn 3 dates back to 1980 than in its opening shot; a star-field is broken by a giant spaceship (spacestation?) that passes by overhead slowly filling the screen. Its as if the producers thought every sci-fi film had to start like that ionic opening from Star Wars (demonstrated by Alien too, just several months before). Unfortunately the visual effects of Saturn 3 were pretty dire even by 1980 standards- today they are horrible reminders of how truly special the special effects of ILM and Trumbulls EEG were back then.

Looming larger over Saturn 3 than even Star Wars is Ridley Scott’s Alien, released several months earlier in the summer of 1979. It seems that everything that Alien gets right, Saturn 3 gets wrong. Scott struggled himself getting decent effect shots completed for Alien, limited by the technologies available this side of the Atlantic, but got away with it with careful photography, shooting around the limitations set on him (Scott shot many of the effects himself). Saturn 3 fails spectacularly- the miniatures are terrible, they are shot terribly, they are composited terribly (grain is everywhere, mattes fail  and stars bleed through some of the spaceships, there’s all sorts of errors that abound).

More importantly, Scott knew that his film would succeed or fail simply with its title character. Luckily he stumbled upon, by way of Dan O’Bannon, H R Gigers disturbing art and a team was assembled with Giger to create one of, if not the, most successful movie monsters of all time. Even then Scott knew he had to be careful to shoot around the creatures limitations lest it be revealed to be, ultimately, a tall thin guy in a rubber suit.

Hector, the giant humanoid robot of Saturn 3 that goes rather awry, is in fact a  pretty good piece of design. It certainly looks authentic and the fact it lacks anything like a human face (or robotic approximation of one) works in its favour. But even its biggest fans will admit that it suffers from the technology of the day. You can always tell that the film is being edited around whatever workable footage the crew could get, and if rumours are to be believed, it was largely those difficulties shooting the robot that exasperated the actors and got the first director fired.

The story of John Barry’s involvement in Saturn 3 and ultimate exit from the project is a sad one that I won’t go into here (see Greg’s website for more). My own most personal link with Saturn 3 is John Barry and the news of his passing that I read in Starburst at the time. For a teenage geek like me who loved movies, John Barry was something of a minor hero. Its funny thinking back on it now, but back then I knew the names of costume designers and effects guys like my school friends knew and idolised football players. So when I read the news of his passing and what happened to him with Saturn 3, it was very sad, and I cannot think of Saturn 3 without feeling that sadness and remembering him. It’s easy for me to state that John Barry deserved better, that perhaps if Saturn 3 was a smaller film with a cast of unknowns with less egos involved, that he might have stayed with the production and it ended up a better film. But this is the real world in which great production designers don’t necessarily make great directors and where films only get greenlit with ‘name’ actors attached, and time is money in film-making and difficult shoots require difficult decisions.

sat5As it is, Saturn 3 is a pretty bad film that hasn’t aged at all well, but it is an enduring reminder of how beautiful Farrah Fawcett was. She’s actually cast well as Alex and the part suits her- there is an innocence and other-worldliness to her that comes across, but I don’t think she looks particularly comfortable at times with co-star Kirk Douglas as her lover Adam. Her casting as a love interest with the-then-64 year-old Douglas is astonishing really. I don’t think a film would get away with it these days but it isn’t just a casting oddity; the age gap is in the script. I think her character is actually supposed to be younger than Fawcett was at the time (33 I think), she certainly seemed younger to me in the novel, as I remember.

A remarkably fresh-faced Harvey Keitel is in fine form as the snake that enters Eden, but his performance is hampered by being dubbed over throughout the film by English actor Roy Dotrice – although I am tempted to suggest the strangeness of his voice being so ‘off’ actually helps the film in a way. Captain Benson is clearly odd and deranged and his voice not matching the face we know so well just makes him even more untrustworthy and suspicious.

sat4Kirk Douglas is fascinating; there are all sorts of real-world subtexts going on in the background of the films storyline. Here is a once-major star at the tail end of his Hollywood career clearly in denial of (or indeed raging against) his own age/mortality/twilight career. I mean, he’s in love scenes with the pin-up girl of the 1970s who is more than 30 years younger than he is. Funnily enough, Douglas spends more time with less clothes on than Fawcett, which is either very brave or foolhardy considering his age (maybe he still thought he was Spartacus). The dark side of me thinks it was the casting of Fawcett that got Douglas into signing on for the film, which adds another layer to the already rather dark subtext of all the characters in the film lusting over Alex. Adam is in a long-term loving relationship with her, even though their age difference makes it look ill-judged, Keitel’s Captain Benson brazenly and openly admits he wants to have recreational sex with her (and even seems to try to ply her with drugs), and once Benson’s brainwaves are programmed into Hector, the robot wants her too.

It’s bizarre and disturbing; in Alien, the creature simply wants to kill, but here, well, I’m not sure exactly what Hector has planned for Alex but it surely isn’t pleasant and is likely worse than simply just killing her. It’s HAL 9000 with a libido for goodness sake. Makes me wonder if the film-makers knew what they were getting into in the first place. This film really could have gone dark places but it isn’t that kind of film at all, which undermines the entire thing. Replacement director Stanley Donen (the films producer) was more familiar with musicals and lacked the ability to maintain much suspense. Comparisons here between Saturn 3 and Alien are even more striking- Alien is a brutal masterclass in tension but Saturn 3 is very, very weak. Which is odd really, as what Hector has planned for Alex is much worse than what the Alien has planned for Ripley. Imagine what someone like David Fincher could do with this kind of stuff, or Cronenberg.

You see, that’s the damned thing with Saturn 3– there’s a sense that there is, somewhere, a very good film here. With better effects, a more balanced script, a better director, maybe a less star-studded cast, who knows? (Who am I kidding all thats a completely different movie!). The whole twisted sex thing with Alex caught between an old man/father figure, a young creep and a deranged robot is an adult and challenging subject matter that deserved an adult thriller. Maybe even something as dark and adult as Body Heat. Imagine if Saturn 3 turned out like some kind of noir-ish ‘Body Heat in space’. Now there would be an interesting movie, even with the cast it has. Something hotter, darker, psychological.

But mainstream sci-fi films didn’t do that sort of thing in 1980 (indeed I don’t think they would be allowed to do that sort of thing even now), so Saturn 3 certainly isn’t that kind of movie. At the very least it needed to be as thrilling and intense as Alien, even if just a robot-on-the-loose kind of thing, but it falls way, way short. It’s a pretty bad film really, but yeah, it does have its fans. So I’ll join them today in raising a toast to this bad movie- Happy 36th, Saturn 3; you could have been a bloody disturbing movie.  And I’ll spare a thought for John Barry, and the film he actually wanted Saturn 3 to be. Barry’s Saturn 3 wouldn’t have been the dark sexual thriller I think it could have been. It might have been better.

Maybe the remake will be that disturbing movie. I’m thinking of that line at the end of Robocop; “they can fix everything,” only more along the lines of “they can remake everything” Yeah, even the clunkers like Saturn 3. Its only a matter of time, right?

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8 thoughts on “Happy 36th, Saturn 3

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Firstly, Happy Birthday! Hope you did do some celebrating!

    Secondly – aren’t bad films sometimes more interesting than good ones? Perhaps because of all the possibilities they offer, narrative avenues not taken, problems they present that can be solved now [after the fact, from the comfort of the armchair]? This would explain my past obsession with ‘Alien 3’.

    I did revisit ‘Saturn 3’ a few times after I saw it [in a double-bill with ‘Hawk The Slayer’, when I was 9 years old – something I think only a child could endure], but it was always a massive disappointment. I love the production design and the occasional sadistic touches, but absolutely everything else is terrible.

    And thanks for alerting me to Gregory’s blog: it was a great read on the train home. I was trying to remember whether that Martin Amis bit was actually in ‘Money’ when I read your post, and lo and behold it was.

    ‘Saturn 3’ is right up there in the top 5 of my ‘films I’d like to see remade’. Such a strong premise.
    Alongside ‘The Black Hole’, and a proper filming of Graham Masterton’s ‘The Manitou’, which is an awesome Lovecraftian horror story, crying out to be filmed properly. Even the ending [which was kind of silly at the time] seems more potent now.

    1. Cheers Matt, yeah, I’ve had a pretty good day.

      Oh God, Hawk The Slayer- now THERES a film I couldn’t imagine ever watching again, some bad films are really TOO bad. But maybe it has a fan. Somewhere.

      Regards remakes, its unfortunate that the wrong films seem to get remade all the time. Robocop, Total Recall, they didn’t need remakes at all, and they certainly didn’t do anything new. But a new Saturn 3 could be interesting.

  2. Many (belated) happy returns!

    Saturn 3 is a film whose title I’ve vaguely heard and know no more. I certainly wasn’t aware there were so many names involved! It makes it rather intriguing, though not exactly one that will jump to the top of my “must see” list.

    re: Hawk the Slayer, they tried to crowdfund a sequel last year. I don’t think it got anywhere near its goal, but it did attract some attention, so I guess it does have its admirers.

    1. A sequel to Hawk The Slayer? Isn’t that some sixth circle of Hell or something?

      Thats such a horrible concept it doesn’t bear hinking about. Whenever any fantasy film is described as bad, whether it be Conan or Legend or (even) The Hobbit, just bring up Hawk The Slayer and suddenly the film don’t look as bad. Truly bad films lend a sense of perspective!

      1. And they were planning some kind of spin-off TV series, I think. Clearly they massively overestimated the interest.

        Though, I do feel I need to see the original now…

  3. gregory moss

    Thanks for the shout-out, Ian! And happy birthday! Great piece on Saturn 3. I’d love to see it remade as the down-and-dirty B movie it was meant to be. I always wonder if things were different and Barry was left to make the film he set out to make – what kind of contribution he may have made to the genre – if he had lived to pursue a directing career. One of the great unsung heroes of filmed sci-fi! 🙂

    1. Cheers mate. I’ve never been a fan of the film, but was surprised on re-watching it after so long, at how good a film it could have been. Or indeed might be if ever it got remade. I’m pleased I bought the disc and I wouldnt have if not for your blog.

      I enjoyed the commentary by the way. I can tell it must have been a blast doing it. In a kinder universe I’d get the opportunity to record one for Blade Runner. Maybe commentary tracks by fans (even maybe accompanied by commentary tracks by haters) should be a new trend.

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