Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 27, 2013)
Back in 1980, Saturn 3 caused a stir among my seventh grade friends and me. Why? Because it supposedly included some nude shots of Farrah Fawcett, one of the era’s major sex symbols.
I don’t think any of us actually saw the movie, though I don’t believe its “R”-rating was the reason. After all, my dad took my friend Kevin and me to see the skin-filled 10 a few months prior to Saturn’s release, so clearly there was no fear of “R” movies. I know I wanted to see Saturn and feel pretty sure I pestered my dad about it.
So what kept me from a theatrical screening of Saturn? I suspect its poor reviews turned into the main factor, as my dad simply didn’t want to have to sit through some POS sci-fi flick.
By the time VHS entered my life, Saturn 3 was old news, and the movie’s crummy reputation didn’t entice me to see it. As such, almost 34 years after the film’s initial release, this Blu-ray finally lets me find out if I missed anything in 1980.
Set in an unspecified distant future, Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) wants to pilot a mission to the outpost of “Saturn 3”, but he fails a mental stability exam. Benson immediately confirms the accuracy of that evaluation; he murders Captain James (Douglas Lambert) and steals his cohort’s spot on the flight.
Saturn 3 acts as an “experimental food research station” and comes manned by two humans: Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his lover Alex (Fawcett). The suits back on Earth decide that they’re behind schedule so Benson intends to replace one of them with a cyborg called “Hector”. With the aged Adam close to his “abort” time, it seems likely that he’ll get the boot, so he and Alex try to figure out how to thwart Benson and his huge, ominous metal pal Hector.
Saturn opens with a totally silent credit sequence, which seems like a daring choice – albeit one that may make home viewers worry they got defective Blu-rays. Once that segment concludes, though, any and all attempts at creativity go out the airlock, as the film firmly embraces a mix of prior movies.
These “influences” come across more like theft, and they begin immediately, as the movie’s very first shot blatantly steals the opening to Star Wars. Saturn comes with scads of other clear antecedents, as you’ll pick up on obvious lifts from Alien and Logan’s Run, among others.
If Saturn managed to meld these influences into an interesting package, I might not mind their obvious nature, but unfortunately, it becomes a total snoozer. I suppose the film had the potential to deliver a taught little thriller that surrounds the Alex/Adam/Benson triangle, with some sci-fi action/menace brought in via Hector.
Whatever possible strengths exist, though, they become squandered among the boredom and cheesiness. Star Wars raised the bar on what audiences would accept from sci-fi effects and production design, but Saturn feels like a pre-1977 throwback. While these elements don’t totally flop – they’re superior to what we saw in 1976’s Logan’s Run, for instance – they lack the sophistication we would’ve expected in 1980.
Even with stronger production values, though, Saturn would still be a boring clunker. Apparently the late 70s was a golden age for noted directors who went into genres they clearly didn’t understand. In 1978, Sidney Lumet – creator of gritty dramas like Dog Day Afternoon - found himself out of his element when made a musical called The Wiz. In 1979, Robert Wise – best-known for Oscar winners West Side Story and Sound of Music - went sci-fi with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
With classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Charade behind him, nothing in Donen’s past indicated he should handle a sci-fi thriller, yet he ended up behind the camera of Saturn. Actually, Donen replaced John Barry, an Oscar-winning production designer who worked on legendary films like Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange and Superman. Barry thought up the story and started out as director but was quickly replaced, allegedly due to conflicts with Douglas.
Would Saturn have fared better with Barry behind the camera? Possibly – it couldn’t get much worse. Donen simply displays no affinity for the subject matter whatsoever and can't create any sense of intrigue or drama. The movie plods along its sleepy storyline and leaves us without much reason to care about the characters or the events.
The actors don’t help. Though all talented independently, none of the performers can do anything productive with the parts. Even if we ignore the potential “Ick Factor” of the romantic pairing between 63-year-old Douglas and 32-year-old Fawcett, they show zero chemistry, and Keitel seems stiff and out of place as the human villain.
It probably doesn’t help that for reasons not firmly understood, Roy Dotrice – often remembered as Mozart’s father in 1984’s Amadeus - dubbed all of Keitel’s lines. The sound of Dotrice’s voice from Keitel’s mouth always remains disconcerting and harms an already lackluster performance.
Whatever intentions Barry originally had for Saturn 3, the end product feels like nothing more than a cheap attempt to cash in on the movie trends of the era. Via flicks such as Star Wars, Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sci-fi was hot at the time, and Saturn comes across more like one of that period’s quickie rip-offs than anything to be appreciated in its own right. It offers a slow, forgettable snoozer.
Oh, and memo to my 12-year-old self: you didn’t miss anything when you couldn’t see Farrah nude. She shows her boobs for a split-second – and since Farrah obviously had implants, they don’t even look good!