Never allow the “conventional wisdom” on a movie’s reputation to determine whether or not you will watch it. If you do, you’ll miss out on a lot of interesting viewing. This is doubly true when the film in question is a troubled production that had a lot of bad advance publicity before moving on to its predetermined box-office death. A lot of those films go on to be cult movies: Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar are two of the best known examples of this trend.
A lesser known but no less interesting example from the sci-fi genre is Saturn 3. It was the brainchild of John Barry: not the famous soundtrack composer but a gifted production designer who lent his style to films like Star Wars and Superman. His story, which was ultimately scripted by British novelist Martin Amis, is set in the future and focuses on a hydroponic farming project on the third moon of Saturn. It is run by Adam (Kirk Douglas), a wizened type who scorns what Earth has become, and Alex (Farrah Fawcett), his nubile, unworldly assistant and lover.
However, this futuristic Garden of Eden is threatened by the arrival Benson (Harvey Keitel), a mentally unstable cadet who has murdered an officer and assumed his identity to travel to this location. He has undertaken the officer’s mission to construct Hector 3, a Frankenstein’s monster-sized robot that is supposed to help Alex and Adam with their work. Unfortunately, this robot derives its programming from the mind of its operator. Benson’s unstable brainwaves (and the fact that he openly lusts after Alex) ensure that his robotic alter-ego Hector will not be as helpful or benevolent as its inventors intended.
The end result was widely scorned by critics and ignored by most audience members. Part of this comes from the bad publicity the film suffered during its production: Barry walked off the film early in its shoot and was replaced by producer Stanley Donen. There was also reports of bad behavior and conflict between actors on the set. Like the films mentioned early in this review, these factors led to the film being tried and convicted by the entertainment press well before it hit the big screen.
In fairness to the critics, Saturn 3 does have some legitimate problems. The script is unwieldy in spots: for example, an expositional scene designed to explain Benson’s problems is amateurishly “on the nose” in its presentation of the necessary info and the future-speak dialogue sounds more goofy than satirical. The film also suffers from added inconsistency in the narrative due to some drastic pre-release editing that fumbles a few plot points, also resulting in some awkward transitions.
There is also the fact that they chose to dub Keitel’s entire performance(!). To add insult to injury, some last-minute budget cuts resulted in some shockingly cheap-looking visual effects in spots (in fact, the film has the same strange “impressive sets/cheap visual FX” dichotomy seen in Starcrash).
And yet, Saturn 3 remains a very entertaining piece of work if you watch it from the right perspective. With its weird mixture of elaborate production design and psychosexual-minded themes, it often feels like an Italian exploitation flick that somehow got a decent budget and a Hollywood cast.
Douglas – in the midst of last real era as a leading man – gives it his old-school all as the hero, Fawcett is surprisingly good as the sci-fi equivalent of final girl (she does lots of running and screaming) and even when dubbed, Keitel gives an effectively creepy performance. Donen is an odd choice of director for this kind of film but he maintains a solid pace and delivers some decent chase-scene/robot attack sequences, aided nicely by a thrilling score from Elmer Bernstein that mixes strings and horns with quirky electronic accents. It even boasts a finale that makes an unexpected visual reference to Zabriskie Point!
In short, Saturn 3 may have fallen short in the eyes of the status quo as a sci-fi event movie – but cult movie buffs will find it shapes up nicely as a bit of eccentric, fast-moving suspense with exploitation elements and intriguingly offbeat “space opera” production design. It’s the kind of big-budget oddity that is perfectly at home on the small screen and fans of such weirdness will find plenty to feast on here.