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A good idea thwarted by a terrible script
on 15 October 2009
To say that sci-fi thriller Saturn 3 was a troubled picture is putting it mildly. The film suffered massive budget cuts shortly before shooting because of ITC's losses on Raise the Titanic, and things didn't get any better from there. Originally set to be the directorial debut of production designer John Barry, he soon fell foul of Kirk Douglas (whose ego was already smarting from taking second billing to Farrah Fawcett in what would be the last attempt to turn her into a major big screen star) and was replaced after a few days by producer Stanley Donen. Co-star Harvey Keitel fell out with the new director and didn't stick around for post-production, leaving him very obviously dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice, which is all the more obvious since he also voices many of the public address announcements in the early scenes. Most of Elmer Bernstein's modernistic score was thrown out (including a particularly prescient bit of disco techno funk with Gregorian chants) and the film was heavily re-edited to less than an hour-and-a-half in a failed attempt to get a lower rating. After taking a box-office beating in the States it ended up opening quietly in the UK in a double-bill with Hawk the Slayer. It's probably a miracle the film came out at all, but the scars do show.
The idea isn't a particularly bad one, with Douglas and Fawcett an Adam and Eve (well, Adam and Alex) on a research station on one of Saturn's moons who find themselves with a pair of unwelcome serpents in their Eden in the form of Keitel and a robot helper, Hector. As if Keitel's designs on Fawcett and his insistence that Douglas is obsolete weren't bad enough, downloading the robot's programming directly from his brain makes things worse - Hector is a mirror image of Keitel's unstable psyche that eventually renders him literally obsolete as the biggest threat to the couple, leaving the two researchers stalked by an insane horny robot with a god complex. Unfortunately this mostly resolves itself as much running around corridors a la Alien - this being shot in 1979, it wears its influences heavily on its sleeve (even the opening shot was one of dozens of carbon copies of the huge-spaceship-passing-overhead bit from Star Wars).
Modelled on a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing, Hector is a potentially interesting creation, but more as an idea than a physical presence - he doesn't really get to do that much and when walking does tend to look like a man in a headless robot suit. The other special effects in the film are highly inconsistent: some shots are fine but many of the model effects have that Derek Meddings/Gerry Anderson look that doesn't really work in live-action films, especially post-Star Wars ones. Similarly the few scenes on the moon's surface don't convince. John Barry's stamp is still very visible in some of Stuart Craig's design, not least the insect-like spacepod and suit, but the overall impression is of a mixture of some expensive elements that show up the cheaper, more rushed ones.
But the biggest problem is Martin Armis' atrocious screenplay. Structurally it's relatively sound, but his tin ear for dialogue renders almost every scene laughable, not least with his pitiful attempts to create his own version of NewSpeak like "I'm close to abort time" or "I'm just not update enough for murder." Indeed, the film contains some of the worst dialogue ever written for a film, such as the immortal exchange "You have a beautifully body. May I use it." "No." "You know that's penally unsocial on Earth?" No wonder Keitel didn't want to say those lines again... (Apparently, not satisfied with a nude scene, the ever-modest Douglas made constant dialogue suggestions himself, though Hector's admiring line "That man is so virile" hit the cutting room floor.) Unfortunately this smothers the more intriguing ideas in the story and the film's at its best when it dispenses with dialogue altogether and just relies on the visuals, such as the scenes where Hector mimics his programmer or later taunts him with computer screen readouts while remaining obstinately mute.
The end result is a not very good film that still has enough interesting ideas to keep you watching through its obviously truncated running time while frustrating you that it isn't nearly as good as it could have been. One film where a decent remake might not be such a bad idea... Two-and-a-half stars for effort.
Carlton's DVD has no extras but does have a decent letterboxed transfer. The US Region A Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout Factory fares a lot better, with an excellent widescreen transfer and fairly copious extras - audio commentary from a well-informed fan of thefilm, the deleted ecstasy sequence that gave he film its original unused poster design, a slew of deleted and extended scenes from the TV version (albeit copied from a poor quality off-air VHS tape), interviews with Roy Dotrice and FX man Colin Chilvers, stills gallery, trailer and TV spots.