Tuesday, December 3, 2013

SATURN 3 (1980) DVD/Blu-ray Review

Saturn 3 (1980) d. Stanley Donen (UK)

A pair of botanists (Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas), manning an experimental agricultural outpost on one of Saturn’s moons, is visited by a stiff-necked military gent (Harvey Keitel) bearing lots of attitude and a revolutionary new robot, Hector. Powered by strange colored liquids, electricity, and a huge tube of human gray matter, the android is designed to replace one or both of the current residents to increase productivity and feed a starving Mother Earth. But, as so often happens in movies of this sort, malfunctions occur during the programming stage – turns out our metal guest has a direct feed into the roughneck’s psychopathic nature, and both have a yen for the fairer sex. With communications blocked due to a solar eclipse, the battle of man vs. machine vs. man will be waged for the love of a beautiful blonde.

Like another recent Shout! Factory release, Saturn 3 suffered a troubled creative genesis and eleventh-hour censoring, resulting in critical drubbing and commercial disappointment upon its unveiling in early 1980. But in spite of its idiosyncrasies and occasional sub-par visual effects (more on both of those later), this overblown B-movie still manages to hold up as a good old-fashioned killer-robot-on-the-loose thriller, with substantial star-power and one gnarly looking cybernemesis.

The story was originally conceived by Oscar-winning production designer John Barry (Star Wars, Superman), who took his idea to Yvette Mimieux, then-wife of celebrated producer/director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Bedazzled, Charade). Donen was pleased with the concept, and volunteered to produce with Barry slated to make his directorial debut. However, due to conflicts with his strong-willed cast (Douglas was particularly tough on the rookie helmsman), Donen was obliged to visit the set more and more often to keep things on track. Barry, feeling pressured, scrutinized, and frustrated over the rushed schedule for such an f/x-heavy shoot, left the picture, whereupon Donen took over directing duties and completed the film.

However, during post-production, the veteran decided that he wasn’t pleased with Keitel’s American accent and secured acclaimed British thespian Roy Dotrice to entirely re-dub him! (During my first viewing in the mid-80s, I marveled at how different the Mean Streets/Taxi Driver star sounded from his usual Brooklynese tough guy roles. It wasn’t until this most recent viewing that I learned why.)

To everyone’s credit, it is a technically excellent vocal performance – if you didn’t know it was an ADR job, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it. In retrospect, it was and remains a curious artistic decision. (In an interview among the disc’s many special features, Dotrice reveals that the whole recording session was knocked out in a few hours before lunch, but that he never really knew why he got the call and Keitel got the boot.)

Colin Chilvers, who had just won the special effects Oscar for Superman, was in charge of making movie magic, and he, Barry, and powerhouse art director Stuart Craig (who served as production designer here) are credited with the final Hector design, based on Leonardo da Vinci drawings. Costing more than a million dollars, there were several versions of the robot (or cyborg, technically, since there is organic matter involved), including a suit that an actor could ambulate, along with remote control arms, hands, neck and “head.”

In addition to their main star, there are some imaginative cityscapes featuring upside down gravity rooms, flights over the moon’s surface, and several matte paintings that recall (perhaps too much) Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There’s also a shocking airlock murder sequence in the first 10 minutes that is impressively restrained yet splattery.

The Charlie’s Angel bombshell was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress of 1980 for her top-billed role, and it’s true that her wide-eyed naiveté doesn’t really jive with her supposed scientific brilliance. However, she remains an appealing presence, and her take on the character fits the given circumstances. With Douglas’ overbearing machismo and condescending tone, it makes absolute sense for her to ostensibly remain a child in his presence.

On that note, much was made in the press of the substantial age difference between the 64-year-old Douglas and his sexy co-star, who celebrated her 32nd birthday on set. This certainly wasn’t the first May-December romance to unfurl before the cameras, and Douglas (and his character) goes to great lengths to demonstrate his masculinity in order to “deserve” his place in Fawcett’s bed.

There’s no doubt that in spite of his advanced years, this is a M-A-N, and the star isn’t shy about showing off his slightly sagging-but-still impressive backside during an, ahem, awkward scuffle with his quarter-century-younger onscreen rival Keitel.

Fawcett was also persuaded – through Donen’s encouragement and Douglas’ bullying – to show some skin and wear a few racy outfits (including a Barbarella number in a scene that was ultimately cut from the finished film, but exists intact as a special feature).

Shout! Factory has done a stupendous job of remastering the film and packing its DVD/BR release with bells and whistles galore. In addition to the excised scene mentioned above and the Dotrice interview, Chilvers is on hand to discuss the various effects and challenges they presented. During the course of the 15-minute featurette, we learn a wealth of information, including that the SPX budget was unexpectedly slashed when production company ITC’s money pit Raise the Titanic needed additional funds.

We’re also treated to over 10 minutes of additional footage from the network television premiere (some of which nicely flesh out plot and character), an impressive publicity stills gallery, the theatrical trailer and two television spots.

The jewel in the cybernetic crown is the audio commentary track with critic David Bradley and Greg Moss of Something Is Wrong on Saturn 3 (saturn3makingof.com), chock full of facts and behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt. Moss is a longtime enthusiast of the film, and while he’s quick to point out its flaws (primarily the work of novelist Martin Amis, making his screenwriting debut), just as much attention is given to what Donen and his able cast/crew get right. The memorable musical score comes courtesy of Elmer Berstein, and was, according to Moss, the legendary composer's personal favorite.

There’s no denying it’s an uneven sci-fi outing, with Fawcett’s airhead, Douglas’ gritty, grizzled hero, and Keitel’s near-automaton authority figure seemingly from three different movies, but the stellar art direction and Hector’s memorably possessive and persistent robot anchor hold our attention throughout. In many ways, it recalls the classic black-and-white programmers of the 50s and 60s (with a bit more flesh and blood), and fans of that particular milieu should find plenty to enjoy.

Saturn 3 is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.


--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. I would love to see a nice release of Star Knight with Keitel. I would probably call it a similar movie: "classy B".

    1. Holy shinoly, I've never even heard of SK before, but Keitel, Kinski, and Fernando Rey in the same movie? And spaceships? Sign me up.