“SATURN 3″ (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)
How peculiar a film is SATURN 3? Its plot—a horny robot trying to kill its “competition” so it can have Farrah Fawcett all to itself—is one of the least puzzling things about it. You’ll spend far more time wondering why Fawcett is rolling around with a man twice her age (that would be Kirk Douglas), or why Harvey Keitel’s very recognizable voice has been dubbed over, or why all future movies have to have weirdo chess pieces when in reality we’ve been OK with the same basic designs for hundreds of years; or just what anyone was thinking when they greenlit this movie in the first place?
To be fair, it’s not that bad for a post-STAR WARS/ALIEN wannabe. The robot design is great (I’d love a model kit) and even with the spare cast—after the brief opening sequence there are only three characters in the movie besides the robot—it’s got plenty of action, including a third act that is pretty much one long chase scene. And while they’re not developed much, it’s got some interesting concepts at its core, such as the fact that our planet has become overcrowded, forcing folks to live on others (i.e. Saturn) and create ways to improve life back on Earth (this particular station is working on a new food source). Fawcett’s character has never even been to Earth, having lived her entire life in space and thus, probably not even realizing how goddamn icky it is to see her in bed with Spartacus.
But you look at that cast and the director (Stanley Donen, best known for SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN), and you can’t help but expect something a little less cheesy and goofy. Keitel’s arc makes next to zero sense; his character Benson is introduced murdering a man (via an airlock that is partially blocked off by what looks like a giant egg slicer) and impersonating him, but once he gets to Douglas’ base, he’s just kind of a dick. He even builds the robot (named Hector, because why not) as his predecessor was supposed to! After that however, he just ping-pongs between being an ally (he helps Douglas subdue Hector at one point) and outright evil villain, making me wonder if the scenes were out of order. The dubbing (by Roy Dotrice, most recently seen as Pyromancer Hallyne on GAME OF THRONES) just makes everything all the more awkward; I actually spent a good chunk of the film assuming Benson himself was a robot.
Unsurprisingly, the dubbing is just one of the many behind-the-scenes issues that plagued SATURN 3. It seems Donen didn’t think Keitel’s Brooklyn accent was appropriate for the character, so he had Dotrice come in on a single afternoon and redub all of his lines. The special edition doesn’t have any of Keitel’s original voice performance—what it does have is a wonderfully candid interview with Dotrice where he wonders why Keitel hasn’t walked into his home and shot him in the head for ruining what he thought was a perfectly good performance—so we are unable to judge for ourselves, but it seems likely that it never would have happened if Donen hadn’t taken over directing duties from another man. The original director was John Barry (the Oscar winning production designer, not the Bond composer), who was set to make the film his directorial debut. However, after two weeks of shooting, it became clear that he couldn’t handle the production or his actors, and Donen (originally just the film’s producer) had to step in and take over. Barry died a year later from meningitis, so he’s obviously not around to offer his side of the story or talk about the film’s other issues that were beyond his control, such as the fact that the studio cut some of SATURN 3’s budget in order to put it toward their film RAISE THE TITANIC!, which was in production at the same time (and would also later tank at the box office even harder than SATURN 3 did!).
Some of this material is covered on the commentary by Greg Moss, who runs a (the?) SATURN 3 fansite, and critic David Bradley, who acts as a sort of moderator while adding his own two cents. It’s not the most entertaining track I’ve ever heard; both men have very dry voices, and of course had no actual experience with the production, so it just comes off like someone reading a Wikipedia entry. Also they run out of things to talk about (or IMDb filmographies to recite) after a while, so as the film plays on they fall silent more often than not (more than once I wondered if I had accidentally muted my receiver). The interview with special FX man Colin Chilvers is pretty enlightening, however, and (rare for a Scream Factory release) there are a handful of deleted scenes that are worth a look, particularly the one with Douglas taking Hector outside to repair something on the base’s exterior. These scenes were only used to pad out the 88 minute runtime for television airings (which also had to likely trim a few things, like the brief Fawcett nudity), and they are clearly taken from a VHS copy of that airing, but Scream doesn’t usually offer any deleted material on their discs, so it’s a nice surprise.
It’s not like there are a ton of great killer robot movies, so even though SATURN 3 is hardly a classic, it’s certainly not the black sheep of the genre. It mostly fits right in with the others, and seemed to have inspired films like DEAD CALM (watch the movie and try to tell me it didn’t influence Philip Noyce’s!) and HARDWARE (the scene where Hector reassembles himself is very much like the robot reforming in Richard Stanley’s underrated gem). It walks a fine line between being campy enough to watch for ironic enjoyment while also just being a fun little sci-fi/horror blend that thankfully doesn’t rip off ALIEN at every turn, like most genre films of the period did. And as always, Scream Factory gives it the royal treatment, with a fine transfer and plenty of extras for its fans to enjoy.