Saturday 27 December 2014

Guilty pressure… Saturn 3 (1980)

The great film critic, Roger Ebert really hated this film and just felt it was dumb, citing as evidence the scene in which the two main characters, on the run from a psychotic robot, break a hole in the floor of their space station so that it will fall into the hyper-cold waters below. Surely the air pressure would render such action suicidal mused Ebert and, thinking about it, he was probably right unless the station formed an air-tight seal over the cavern…?

There is so much pressure to not like this film but you know I always like to find something even in the most lost of causes…

Saturn 3 was, improbably, directed by Stanley Donen who also directed Singing in the Rain… it has a script from Martin Amis (who later based his 80’s masterpiece Money on the experience) and features Harvey Keitel dubbed with an mid-Atlantic English accent (courtesy of Roy Dotrice)… in truth it’s a bit of a muddle but not one that isn’t fun to watch.

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas is in it for a start and, even at the age of 64, he’s a believable action hero – even a leading man. I think his performance is full of warmth and wit overcoming the obstacles this compromised production placed in front of him. Harvey Keitel also puts in a string performance, with lots of dark moody looks and method intensity although he is majorly under-minded by the decision to dub his lines: what on earth was wrong with his accent?!

Farrah Fawcett
Now, Farrah Fawcett is easily the least able of the three leads but she puts in a decent enough stint and is also exceptionally good looking to the point at which you sometimes forget to watch her acting. (In fairness it should be remembered that Ms Fawcett was later nominated for four Emmys for her dramatic work on The Burning Bed, Extremities and others…).

Against all this is a robot with a tiny head…

The big spaceship arrives...
Saturn 3 was based on a story by John Barry, the production designer who devised the visuals for George Lucas’ Star Wars and Richard Donner’s Superman, who hoped to make his directorial debut with the film. Various production chops and changes resulted in Donen directing and initially he was so disappointed in the end result that he asked for his name to be taken off the credits…

The film opens with an attempt at space operatics as a laughably giant spaceship hoves into view in orbit around Saturn. On board there is an unseemly rush to launch a probe, shadowy figures emerge in a large hanger - echoing the emergence of the aliens in Close Encounters – whilst the call goes out for the probe’s Captain Harding (voiced by UFO’s Ed Bishop!); you’d expect things to be better organised.

The Captain is late for take-off!
As Harding is getting dressed in his spacesuit he encounters Benson (Keitel) a man who just failed to make the grade for this mission – being judged unstable. He soon demonstrates how “unstable” as he opens the airlock and Harding is swept out to his doom. Benson makes the take off in time and heads down to Saturn’s third moon – which could be Atlas, an outer ring “shepherd” – where, for some reason, there is a base working on the production of hydroponic food for an Earth choked by pollution and, drug-dependent, over-population.

The base is run by Major Adam (Douglas) and his partner Alex (Fawcett) who, along with their dog Sally, have been alone for three years – Alex has never been to Earth whilst the much older Adam has spent time there.

Harvey Keitel keeps schtum...
They welcome Benson who proves somewhat socially maladjusted, not interested in small talk but clearly impressed with Alex… He has a canister with him that is later found to contain artificially grown brain tissue: it is to be used in the construction of a robot designed to improve efficiency on the base.

Whilst Adam and Alex continue with their daily routines, exercising, taking communal showers and generally living in relaxed inter-planetary idyll, Benson constructs his robot. You wonder why the couple are not more concerned with his strangeness: he’s clearly loopy.

But, they find out soon enough, as the robot is completed and named Hector… at first the mechanoid appears harmless as Adam easily defeats it at chess and it shows its control in extracting s shard of rock from Alex’s eye – in a genuinely unsettling moment.

Hector's steady hand comes to the rescue... this time...
But, as Benson begins to inject Hector with his own consciousness, it takes on his psychotic elements. Sally is killed and Hector attacks Alex only to release her on her command… but the respite is not for long and the robot attacks all three of the humans who only just manage to bring it to ground – Douglas still making his heroic moves with style!

Hector is disassembled and left in pieces in the lab and, as Adam and Alex work on what to do with the bonkers Benson he arrives in their quarters and tries to wrest Alex away from her older lover. Adam easily bests the younger man and has to be restrained by Alex from finishing him off.

Whilst the humans argue, Hector re-assembles and sets off in pursuit of his “instinctive” revenge. With Benson’s “brain” he is set to fulfil his prime directive in the bloodiest and most barbaric way… will anyone get off the planetoid alive?!

Alex is menaced by Hector
Dusty verdict: The endgame is played out in convincing fashion although, as monsters go, Hector is no match for Ridley Scott’s Alien or Kubrick’s Hal.

It’s entertaining in an undemanding way but full of the aforementioned holes: neither science fiction in the detailed way of 2001 (Arthur C Clarke was rather more of a scientist than Barry or Amis…) or Alien and not science fantasy like the grown-up version of Star Wars the producers maybe wanted.

Hector's tiny head
Much was made of Ms Fawcett’s revealing costumes in the film’s publicity and it does feel as if she is an adornment as much as an active participant in the story. That said there’s a slight spark between her and Douglas and she looks so vulnerable next to the rapacious stare of Mr Keitel… such a shame he was robbed of his voice!

The angelic adornment...
The music by Elmer Bernstein is suitably space operatic and lifts some of the grander visuals even when the interior scenes resemble a low-budget TV series.

Saturn 3 is available on DVD from all the familiar places… but I may keep my VHS for a very rainy day…

Lou takes full responsibility...

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