It must have been very easy and very difficult to make a science fiction movie in the late 70s. It was easy because after the success of “Star Wars,” studios were throwing money at anything with robots in it. But it was difficult because the genre was in a very weird place. Before “Star Wars,” big-budget sci-fi movies generally were thoughtful, philosophical works. But after “Star Wars,” the A-list sci-fi movie transformed into something more visceral. Movies with a message gave way to pure spectacle. “Logan’s Run” was pushed aside for “Flash Gordon.” “Saturn 3” tries to have it both ways. It wants to split the difference between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Alien.” That’s how we get a movie in which Harvey Keitel accidentally teaches a robot how to be horny.
Keitel plays a scientist who doesn’t let a little thing like being declared mentally unstable get in the way of his dreams. Keitel, for reasons never explained, wants to go to a research station on Saturn’s third moon. He kills the guy who is supposed to go and takes his place on the spaceship.
Saturn 3 is where Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett are trying to solve the solar system’s food shortage. You would think that there would be more than two people working on a project that important. You might also think that those two people wouldn’t spend so much time canoodling when they should be working. They have a cozy little life on Saturn 3, and Keitel’s arrival throws everything upside-down. When Keitel arrives, he immediately gets snarky with Douglas and starts demanding sex from Fawcett. “You have a great body,” he tells her. “May I use it?” There isn’t much about the future that “Saturn 3” predicts accurately. But it was right about what some guys in the 21st century consider to be winning pick-up lines.
Douglas is pretty honked off about Keitel talking smack about his experiments. It gets worse when Keitel unpacks the giant robot that’s supposed to help them get more work done. Named “Hector,” the robot is nine feet tall, gets around about as well as Kirk Douglas does now, and needs to be taught everything from scratch. That part isn’t much of a problem, because Keitel has an antenna in his brain that transmits everything he knows into Hector. Unfortunately, that means Hector learns to have the hots for Fawcett, and things go downhill in a hurry.
Respected British novelist Martin Amis wrote the screenplay for “Saturn 3.” It may be hard to believe that a well-regarded author could turn out such a weak screenplay, but I can see how it might happen. A novelist can get into the interior lives of his or her characters and show the readers what they’re thinking. Movies don’t really have that luxury unless you’re Wes Anderson and you can get Alec Baldwin to narrate. So “Saturn 3” is missing a lot of context for what its characters are thinking or feeling. For example, it’s revealed that Fawcett’s character has never been to Earth. We never get a sense of what that means to her or why it might be important in the context of the story. When the movie ends with her arriving on Earth, the significance just isn’t there.
Good science fiction is concerned with asking questions. These questions may be, “What does it mean to be human?” or “Are we alone in the universe?” Watching “Saturn 3,” however, means you’re more likely to ask questions such as, “Why the hell was Harvey Keitel willing to kill to get to Saturn 3?” “Why is he still running loose on the moon after a psych evaluation finds him ‘potentially unstable?’” “Why doesn’t Harvey Keitel sound like Harvey Keitel?” (That last question is easy – he was dubbed for some reason.) Science fiction was asking some very challenging questions in the 70s. “Saturn 3” attempts to continue the trend by asking the question, “Why are you still watching this?”
We’re instituting a new feature here at Cyborg City 3000, and this is as good a time as any to introduce it. The Schlock Index breaks down a movie’s merits according to the “Three Bs” of trash cinema as noted by the immortal Joe Bob Briggs – Blood, Breasts, and Beasts. Check out the Schlock Index page for more detail about what all this means.
- Blood – There isn’t a whole lot of violence in “Saturn 3,” but what little there is makes an impression. Keitel kills a guy at the beginning by ejecting him into space, where he freezes solid and gets shattered like a Precious Moments figurine. Later, Hector tricks Douglas and Fawcett by wearing Keitel’s severed head as a hat. Aside from that, it’s just Harvey Keitel and a 60-something Kirk Douglas wrestling around, which is no one’s idea of a heavyweight bout. 4/10
- Breasts – Both Fawcett and Douglas get brief nude scenes, and I leave it to you to determine which one of those sounds more appealing. That’s a solid 66 percent of the cast of this movie that gets naked. We know from “Bad Lieutenant” and “The Piano” that Harvey Keitel has no problem whipping it out on camera, so why not in this movie? I have to conclude that Spartacus didn’t want to be upstaged, so to speak. 5/10
- Beasts – The horny killer robot is the only thing that comes close. Hector allegedly cost $1 million, according to IMDB. I want to see the invoices on that because it’s one of the cheapest-looking robots in movie history. There’s clearly a person inside of the suit, which is big and bulky in the trunk and the legs. But then on top of that Hector has these skinny little arms and a tiny head that must have been built from Erector sets. It looks like a model kit some kid got bored with and never finished. The producers must have been pretty excited about the thing because it’s the only thing on the poster. Farrah Fawcett had a pretty good track record with posters in the 70s, I’m told, so apparently Hector was seen as pretty hot stuff. 2/10