There are some movies that remain with us even though they are not particularly good. There might be some sort of sentimental reason for holding them in a place far above what their quality for demand but they remain in that spot. For me one of the movies that fit in that category is ‘Saturn 3’. Back when I bought my first VCR it was a dream come true for a lifelong movie buff; the ability to own copies of my favorite films. Initially I began building my collection, one that currently contains over 5.600 titles, with movies I recorded from cable television. That required a diligent scouring of the cable guide noting the time and channel of desired material. ‘Saturn 3’ was the first pre-recorded tape I purchased. This opened up a brand new vista for expanding my nascent collection; professionally disturbed movies. This would drastically alter the way I added films to my shelves. The movie also was one of the first that I noticed an actor in a very early film appearance who would become a major part of the best films of his generation, Harvey Keitel. ‘Saturn 3’ reappeared on my radar recently when I received a copy to review in high definition. The distributor, Shout Factory, has been one of the greatest sources for vintage television and Sci-Fi movies. This Blu-ray release was a valid excuse to revisit a long time guilty pleasure.
Set in the future when the human race had nearly exhausted the natural resources of earth and overcrowding has reached a critical level. Forced by necessity to move out through the solar system mankind depends on research and exploration of the planets and their moon. On the third moon of the ringed gas giant Saturn, Tethys, a small hydroponics station is run by a two person crew, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his much younger assistant Alex (Farrah Fawcett). This near idyllic setting was perfect for the lovers providing a verdant home away from the crush of earth. Adam was old enough to remember earth but Alex was part of a new generation that has spent their entire lives in space. She wants someday to visit the place where humanity began. Their little extraterrestrial Garden of Eden was soon to be visited by its own version of the serpent.
Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel) has been dispatched to the outpost to replace the current staff. With him he has a new cybernetic robot named, Hector, the prototype of the new demigod series. The robot has a brain made form neural tissue harvested from human fetuses. A link to a human controller by means of a probe inserted into an access port surgically embedded in the back of the human’s head directly into his brain. Benson has such a port. What the audience got to witness something unknown to Adam and Alex, Benson is an imposter. Back on earth he murdered the real human controller taking his place. The man arriving on Saturn 3 was homicidal sociopath. Now just pause a moment to contemplate the concept of such a darkly deranged and psychotic killer merged with the unbelievable strength of the robot.
Benson wants to decommission Adam so as to have Alex to himself. At one point he offers her drugs and states he wants to use her for sex, something repugnant to the naive Alex. When Benson plugs into Hector the robot gains the lustful desires harbored by its human. Naturally an epic battle ensues that seems to resolve the conflict only to have the vanquished reassemble itself. Foreshadowed by a chess game between Adam and Benson/Hector the dénouement is setup in a contrived albeit effective fashion.
It has to be remembered that the flick is thirty three years old which places it long before the current era of special effects. With that consideration in mind the effects used here aren’t all that bad. Hector is suitably sinister and the set design works to help create and sustain the proper mood. Part of the reason the story has a tendency to fall apart towards the third act has to do with the premature departure of the initial writer, John Barry and director, Stanley Donen. Donen admitted that Barry abruptly left the project after never being on set, an untenable circumstance for him. Due to the demands of the scheduling the film proceeded none the less. With such behind the scenes drama it is an accomplishment the movie was ever brought to the point of a release.
Even with such a dismal foundation, circumstances that have sunk many films with a stronger plot, there are some aspects of the movie that are notable. The name Hector refers to the mightiest warrior in the Trojan War, a suitable mantle for a nearly invincible robot. The idea of the consciousness of a psychopathic killer in control of such a psychically overpowering mechanical being is in itself fascinating. Even in more contemporary fiction the idea of mental control over cybernetic entities is one that is far from played out. Considering the recent real life advances science and technology has made in this area the movie is more pertinent that three decades ago. Just last night I watched a series on the Science Channel that explored this very situation. They showed it is now possible to control very basic robotics though an external headset that reads the neurological activity of our brains. It was pure science fiction back when this story was produce d but we are on the precipice of commercial application of the technology.
On the human side of the equation the cast is fantastic. Ms Fawcett was in the process of migrating from the big hair roles on television to becoming a serious actress of considerable merit. This movie was made right after the end of ‘Charlie’s Angles’ and preceded her film career including her acclaimed performances in the intensely dramatic ‘Burning Bed’ and ‘Extremities’. Mr. Douglas had already had a long and distinguished career bringing a sense of gravitas to this production. As mentioned this film was relatively early in the still strong career of Mr. Keitel but it demonstrated the darker side of his amazing emotional range. The film is not great but it still holds together as a popcorn flick of distinction.
Commentary By Greg Moss and Film Critic David Bradley