Saturn 3 (1980) is one of a number of Sci-Fi horror films to erupt onto the screen in the wake of Alien (1979) and Star Wars that purported to be realistic, action-packed and frightening. While more direct followers of Star Wars included fun camp like Battle Beyond the Stars and cheesy b-pictures like Starcrash, direct followers of Alien took a more chilling bend as did X-Tro and Saturn 3.
Saturn 3 also falls into the subgenre of science fiction that includes Logan’s Run, Silent Running and 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which depict a clean, safe world of the future when something goes wrong. However, unlike Star Wars, Alien or 2001, Saturn 3 doesn’t look like quite like a realistic future that the audience is a fly-on-the-wall for.
Like these other films, Saturn 3 depicts a high-quality set design and a distinct vision for the future, but the difference here is that every miniature in Saturn 3 looks like a miniature, every scene looks like it was filmed on a movie set, every tool or computer looks like a prop or set piece. In short, for all the skill that went into it, Saturn 3 requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief to get through.
The plot itself revolves around two scientists on the third moon of Saturn (hence the title) working on a project to provide Earth with food. During their time on the moon, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett) have become romantically involved (in spite of their 31 year age difference). Things seem like a bit of paradise for this ostensible Adam and Eve in their own technological Garden of Eden, until a scientist named Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) arrives to replace at least one of the two with an intelligent robot.
The robot in question is a monstrosity named Hector, a combination of the utilitarian and the terrifying. The uncredited creature creator (original director John Barry) deserves credit for creating a monster so far from any expected design. Hector is ostensibly humanoid and bipedal, but has a large, misshapen human brain at his core. The robot is headless, instead having two mechanical eyes on a stalk protruding from its shoulders (making peripheral vision no problem whatsoever). It has claws for hands and cranes for arms and is otherwise covered in both metal plates and veins and arteries.
Sound frightening? Hector is, for small amounts of screentime. Most of his screentime, however, is dominated by suspenseless and dense scenes in which the (also uncredited) actor inside the Hector suit plods around the impressive sets like Godzilla over Tokyo and reaches for the actors with his robotic claws. With a terror like this robot about the small space station on Atlas, one would expect something like Alien to grab the audience.
Alas, that horrific terror never really takes place as the cat-and-mouse game with Hector hunting Alex and Adam feels slow with forced scares and emotionless, by-the-numbers chases and traps. Such an impact was heightened in films like Alien and Jaws by rarely showing the monstrous villain and never fully in frame. Hector, on the other hand, is choreographed to be showcased all too visibly in each of his scenes. The affect is not one of a hidden, barely knowable threat, but of a guy in a monster suit.
Adam, Benson, Hector and Alex engage in a game of Chess
The entire proceedings aren’t helped by the fact that Keitel’s dialogue was entirely overdubbed by British Actor Roy Dotrice, making the already stiff production seem even flatter.
This isn’t to say that Saturn 3 is all bad. On the contrary, there are many good parts to this film. Several moments are decidedly disturbing and some of the uses of optical and miniature effects are very impressive. Indeed, the main issue with this film isn’t that “it’s bad”, but that it had the potential to be great and completely missed that mark of excellence.
Douglas and Fawcett (and even Keitel and Dotrice) are very accomplished actors, but their performances here seem to consist of rehearsal footage or first takes. The sets and props are beautifully realized, but filmed so passionlessly that the entire production feels like something from a Sci-Fi TV show, somewhere between Star Trek (1966) and Jason of Star Command (1978).
The premise is also inspired. The Hector unit is an otherwise blank-slate until its programmer, Benson, proves to be a dangerous sociopath and thus, the otherwise innocuous tool of a robot becomes a terrifying hunter. This potential remains decidedly unrealized, however, and the story instead plods along like Hector himself.
Much of this may relate to the film’s budget, which was cut to help finish the studio’s other production Raise the Titanic. However, a lot of the issue may relate to the fact that instead of hiring a director well versed in sci-fi and horror, like original director John Barry, ITC Entertainment hired producer Stanley Donen to replace Barry and complete the film. Yes, the director of Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade, The Little Prince, Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game was brought onboard to direct a terrifying science fiction film in the vein of Alien. The results speak for themselves.
Alex and Hector in a disturbing scene from Saturn 3
On the other hand, while Saturn 3 was panned upon release and was nominated for three Golden Raspberry awards (Worst Picture, Worst Actor, Worst Actress), Saturn 3 does have its fans and defenders. For those fans and defenders, the 2013 Shout! Factory Blu-Ray release has an absolute treasure trove of DVD extras. The disc sports an interview with Dotrice and how he (very reluctantly) overdubbed Keitel’s performance as well as an interview with special effects artist Colin Chilvers. Deleted scenes (including some re-inserted for the NBC broadcast premiere), the theatrical trailer a very impressive still gallery and a commentary by film historian Greg Moss and film critic David Bradley help round out the extras.
While the Blu-ray transfer is beautiful and worthy of the high-definition treatment, this sharper image serves only to underscore the fact that these scenes are shot on sets with props and kills the illusion that we might be watching real occurrences even more. That said, Saturn 3 can often be beautiful and impressive in scope, ambition and design. Still, it’s almost impossible to watch Saturn 3 without thinking of how much better it could have been and might have been had the film been better (and more chillingly) executed.