Thursday, March 19, 2015

"What is this turning into? A goddamned movie blog?"

No, not at all.  But watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture led me to check out a few other sci-fi films of the late 70s/early 80s, and I'm writing about one of those today.  I've got to justify my monthly expenditure on Netflix somehow. Allow me to briefly draw you attention to the slightly obscure Saturn 3.

The opening shot is once again,  big ass spaceship.

Released in early 1980, a mere three months after ST:TMP, Saturn 3 boasts a ridiculous amount of talent on board; much more talent than you'd need for a low budget film designed to ride on the coattails of Star Wars. The director was Stanley Donen, a true Hollywood legend from the glory days of MGM's Technicolor musicals.  His past credits included On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Funny Face and Charade. The principal roles are filled by Kirk Douglas, in one of this last theatrical starring performances; Farrah Fawcett, who was one of the most famous women in the world in 1980; and none other than Harvey Keitel, hot off a series of amazing performances in Taxi Driver, The Duelists and Fingers. On top of this, the script was written by frickin' Martin Amis, who'd achieve literary fame a few years later with his novel Money. Throw in Oscar-winning cinematographer Billy Williams and an Elmer Bernstein score, and you've got one overqualified cast and crew.

Saturn 3 feels like a typical early/mid 70s Hollywood sci-fi movie being forced into a Star Wars-shaped box. The small cast and claustrophobic sets give it a Silent Running* feel. The slightly dystopian theme brings to mind Logan's Run and Soylent Green. The movie is often thought to be influenced by Alien (which it resembles in some ways, but Alien reached theaters only 9 months earlier, and Saturn 3 had been in development since 1975.) The film was conceived by John Barry, a production designer on Clockwork Orange, Phase IV, and Superman. Barry was the original director, but dropped out a couple weeks into filming, leading to Donen, the film's producer, to finish shooting the movie. Barry immediately went on to do second unit directing for The Empire Strikes Back. While working on Empire, he contracted meningitis and suddenly died.

Fawcett got involved when British film mogul Lew Grade, whose company ITC was producing Saturn 3, got seated next to her on an airplane flight.  With Fawcett on board, the movie suddenly became a more important project. Needing a big name male lead, the producers considered Sean Connery and Micheal Caine. They weren't available at that time, and Douglas ended up with the role. Despite the top tier names on the marquee, Saturn 3 wasn't really a big budget special effects orgy ala ST:TMP.  Upon release, it was widely mocked for it's cheap looking miniatures and matte paintings. A couple shots were simply borrowed from ITC's TV show Space: 1999. Thankfully, these sequences are confined to a short sequence near the beginning, when Keitel flies a small space ship to the third moon of Saturn. Once he lands, the rest of the running time is spent inside the confines of Douglas and Fawcett's research station. This set is, quite frankly, pretty damned cool looking, so after the first 15 minutes, it's all smooth sailing, visually.

Goofy looking miniatures sank Saturn 3's  chances to be the next Star Wars.

Despite the sci-fi setting, Saturn 3 basically uses the old "trapped in a house with a killer" psychological horror format. The movie opens in a space station. Keitel's character kills one of his fellow officers in order to impersonate him. He does this by opening a hatch, causing his victim to be sucked into the vacuum of space, hitting some wires on the way out which literally tear him into bloody shreds. This shocking opening bit grabs your attention. Regrettably, nothing else in the movie has the same visceral impact as this scene. Taking the place of the captain he murdered, Keitel travels to the remote Saturn 3 research lab, carrying with him a new type of robot, powered by cloned human brain cells. The lab is manned solely by Kirk Douglas and his assistant/girlfriend Farrah Fawcett. The physically imposing, humanoid "Demigod" model robot is programmed by connecting directly to Keitel's brain. Unfortunately, since Keitel is a homicidal maniac who killed the robot's intended trainer, things go quickly awry. The robot murders Keitel and attempts to hunt down Douglas and Fawcett. I think the parallels with Frankenstein will be obvious.

Not a great idea to have the most shocking scene at the very beginning.

We don't learn much about human society outside of the lab, but hints of overpopulation of mass drug abuse are dropped. The purpose of the Saturn 3 lab is apparently to research hydroponic methods for increasing food production. Keitel arrives with a stash of pills with names like "Blue Dreamers," and it's implied that the human population on Earth is kept under control through sex and drugs. Keitel's characters speaks in an unemotional monotone and immediately informs Fawcett that he is attracted to her and requests to "use" her body for his pleasure When she reacts with digust, he informs her that such relationships are normal on Earth. The old-fashioned Douglas, a man with 20th century values and who has a monogamous romantic relationship with Fawcett, is mocked by Keitel as having no place in the world anymore.

Scenes like this make up about 30% of the movie, it feels like.

Saturn 3 spends a suprising amount of time on Douglas and Fawcett making pillow talk while longuing around in their bathrobes. They've created a mini-paradise for themselves on Saturn 3 and are counting the days until Keitel leaves. One issue: it seems like Keitel is the only one who is actually doing any real work at the lab. We are supposed to relate to this pair of lovebirds, but Keitel has a point when he yells at them for failing to produce results while people on Earth are starving. The first 2/3 of Saturn 3 consists of slowly building tension between Keitel and Douglas/Fawcett. Once the robot goes rouge, we are treated to 15 minutes Douglas and Fawcett being chased around the corridors. Eventually, Douglas, realizing that he IS a bit a relic, straps some bombs to himself and blows the robot up.

Cool set design. Cool killer robot design.

Upon release, Saturn 3 was rejected by critics and audiences and died at the box office. It received Golden Raspberry nominations for worst picture, actor and actress. 30 plus years later, it just seems like a nice, harmless sci-fi film, and currently holds a respectable 5/10 rating on IMDB. However, it does very much feel like a movie put together by some old Hollywood dudes trying to make a quick buck off of that Star Wars bullshit. At times it is very stagey looking, and feels incredibly set-bound. There are some very cool looking sets, and the killer robot is sufficiently scary looking. But somehow, Douglas and Fawcett just don't fit into Saturn 3's futuristic world very convincingly.  Kirk Douglas was simply not made for science fiction films. Also, you may get creeped out by the huge age difference between the two. Saturn 3 exists in the 1960s-70s movie tradition of romantically pairing a young woman with someone waaaay older.  (See also, George C Scott and Julie Christie in Petulia and Donen's own Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn). Douglas displays an ample amount of his naked, sagging flesh in the movie. The fact that he is biologically old enough to be Fawcett's grandfather makes their love scenes a bit icky.

An example of the stylized, artificial looking sets.

My verdict: An entertaining failure. A brief epilog: Sean Connery did end up staring in a similar sci-fi movie, Outland in 1981, which takes place on a moon of Jupiter instead of Saturn. Like Saturn 3, Outland was a joint Hollywood/UK effort, and also featured a grisly, space vacuum-themed death. I suspect I'll post my thoughts on this eventually.

*The 1972 movie directed by Douglas Trumball, special effects guy on ST:TMP. Silent Running seems to have had an influence on Star Wars and Aliens. Trumball also worked on The Andromeda Strain, directed by ST:TMP's Robert Wise. Hollywood is a small town in many ways.


Unknown said...

I don't think I've seen this one. So it may be somewhat obscure. When I think post Star Wars movies I tend to think of Flash Gordon. Which I think was one of the first movies I saw as a kid at the thearters, along with the empire strikes back.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Sean - it might be mostly forgotten now, but was pretty well known at the time. I recall hearing about it when I was a kid. The presence of Farrah Fawcett guaranteed it a bit of attention.

FG was a pretty great movie, though in a totally different vein than S3. The part where that guy in the mask fell on the spikes and his eyes popped out kind of freaked me out a bit.

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