SATURN 3. Campy science fiction with a star-studded cast

Despite all its flaws, Saturn 3 is worth watching – if not for its unintended comedy, then at least for its stunning visual presentation.

Maciej Kaczmarski

13 March 2024

On paper, it was a surefire hit: a respected director, well-known names in the lead roles, an experienced technical crew, a high budget, sophisticated set design, and innovative special effects. So what went wrong?

The action takes place in the distant future on an experimental research station located on one of Saturn’s moons – Titan (also known as Saturn III). The only workers on the station are an older man, Adam, and his young assistant and lover, Alex. Scientists oversee the hydroponic cultivation of plants intended as food for the inhabitants of an overcrowded, famine-ridden, and polluted Earth. Adam and Alex have created a warm, safe semblance of home on the station, but they will have to confront a dangerous intruder – Captain Benson, who has murdered another officer and taken his place aboard the spacecraft heading to Titan. Benson assembles a robot named Hector: an advanced model from the “Demi-Gods” series, whose mechanical structure is powered by the activity of human brain tissue directly connected to Benson’s mind. He informs the scientists that Hector will soon replace Adam. However, the artificial intelligence trapped in the metal body adopts the psychopathic traits of its creator and rebels against humans. The research station becomes a deadly trap.

The idea for Saturn 3 originated in the mind of John Barry (not to be confused with the composer of the same name) – a British production designer who worked on films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick, Star Wars (1977) by George Lucas, and Superman (1978) by Richard Donner. However, Barry lacked experience in writing screenplays, so the script was entrusted to the writer Martin Amis. Several different versions of the screenplay were produced by various authors, as the storyline concept underwent continuous changes. Farrah Fawcett accepted the offer to play Alex, while the roles of Adam and Benson were initially offered to Sean Connery and Michael Caine, respectively, both of whom declined – leading to Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel being cast instead. Behind the camera was John Barry, for whom this was supposed to be his directorial debut. Barry envisioned Saturn 3 as a low-budget science fiction film, but the producers Stanley Donen and Lew Grade from ITC Entertainment believed in the success of the film and invested $10 million in its production (for comparison, the first Star Wars film cost only one million more).

Once the screenplay, cast, and crew were finalized, pre-production began. Nearly 80 craftsmen spent four months building a replica of the space station designed by production designer Stuart Craig in the Shepperton Studios near London. It resembled a huge labyrinth to such an extent that a map had to be created because in the initial phase of filming, crew members were getting lost on set. Special effects specialist Colin Chilvers prepared the design of the Hector robot, relying on anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The construction of several copies of the two-and-a-half-meter robot took nearly two years and cost over a million dollars. Operating the remote-controlled Hector required three teams of 20 technicians. The robot was not easy to work with and often malfunctioned (especially prone to breakdowns was its small head mounted on a thin neck), and moreover, it was assembled by an external company in a way that made repairs difficult. Control over Hector became easier when Chilvers and his team rebuilt the most sensitive elements of the metal golem.

Filming began in early 1979. Two weeks after the first clapboard, Barry resigned from the director’s position, which was then taken over by Stanley Donen, known for films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and other musicals with Gene Kelly. The reasons for Barry’s resignation vary depending on the source – some cite his lack of directorial experience, while others point to conflicts with actors, especially Kirk Douglas. The star complained that the inexperienced director devoted significantly more time and attention to the robot than to the actors. Douglas was also overly absorbed in maintaining his image as an energetic, physically fit man – despite being 62 years old just a few weeks earlier – so he insisted on adding scenes in which he could appear shirtless (Martin Amis parodied him in the satirical novel Forsyth, featuring an aging actor Lorne Guyland fixated on his body). After resigning, John Barry became an assistant director on The Empire Strikes Back (1980) directed by Irvin Kershner. One day he collapsed on set and was taken to the hospital; he died the next day from inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes.

Excluding the 1974 adaptation of The Little Prince, Saturn 3 was Stanley Donen’s first science fiction film. The director didn’t feel comfortable in this genre, and to make matters worse, he couldn’t find a common ground with Keitel. Keitel, a follower of the method acting, had many questions about his character, which Donen dismissed with disdainful remarks, while also forcing the actor into endless retakes. Furthermore, the director believed that Keitel’s Brooklyn, somewhat “street” accent didn’t suit the intelligent Benson, so the actor was dubbed by Roy Dotrice in post-production – a British actor who imitated… an American accent for Saturn 3. And that’s not all: in the final version of the film, only one scene directed by Barry was used (a chess game involving Adam and Hector), while two sequences directed by Donen were removed because Lew Grade deemed them tasteless. Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack also underwent cuts – the composer wrote an hour of music, of which only a few minutes were used (the full soundtrack was released on CD in 2006).

Saturn 3 premiered in American theaters in February 1980, while British audiences had to wait until May. The box office revenue amounted to just under $5 million, which was only half of the film’s budget, and coupled with the financial failure of Raise the Titanic (1980) by Jerry Jameson – another costly title from the ITC Entertainment stable – it marked the beginning of the end of Lew Grade’s producing career. Critics were scathing in their reviews of Donen’s film. “The film is incredibly stupid, completely implausible from a scientific point of view, and as such, a shameful waste of money” wrote Roger Ebert, echoed by others such as Paul M. Sammon (“A bloody, derivative thriller”) and P.J. Snyder (“A sloppy, tacky production of the kind that is simply swallowed by SF fans”). Marshall Fine, Keitel’s biographer, called Saturn 3 “the nadir of his career”. The film received three Golden Raspberry Award nominations (worst film, actor [Douglas], and actress [Fawcett]) and two Stinkers Bad Movie Award nominations (worst actress [Fawcett] and screen couple [Douglas and Fawcett]). But it didn’t win any of these awards.

It’s hard not to agree with the critics’ accusations and nominations for anti-awards. The level of acting from otherwise good actors in Saturn 3 is abysmal, but this is mainly due to the absurd screenplay devoid of any credibility – not only scientific, as Ebert pointed out, but also psychological. The dialogue didn’t allow for the creation of three-dimensional characters involved in a logical plot; instead, it enabled the realization of a series of nonsensical scenes that formed an

absurd whole, eliciting involuntary laughter. It’s impossible not to burst into laughter while watching a naked, wrinkled Douglas engaging in a life-and-death wrestling match with an enraged Keitel, or the latter screaming (not in his own voice, let’s remember): “We have to remove its brain!” Nor can one maintain seriousness while listening to the dialogue between Keitel and Fawcett: “You have a great body, can I use it?” Keitel suggests, to which she replies that she’s with Adam. “Only for personal consumption? That’s outrageous on Earth!” Keitel protests. There are many more such dialogues in the film.

Despite all these flaws, Saturn 3 is worth watching – if not for its unintended comedy, then at least for its stunning visual presentation. The initial sequences of the film pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and it’s not the worst model to follow. The meticulous attention to technical details by the filmmakers is comparable to the obsessive care of that director and is evident in impressive special effects, stylish set design, and elegant costumes (some spacesuits and helmets are unmistakably reminiscent of the uniforms in Star Wars). The appearance and animation of the Hector robot also make a good impression. In this production, you can feel genuine dedication, mastery, and mastery of filmmaking to perfection. But cinema is not just moving pictures, but also stories, and the one in Saturn 3 leaves much to be desired. If the creators approached the screenplay with the same reverence and dedication as the set designers, costume designers, and special effects experts, Saturn 3 would have been a masterpiece, not a campy film with wasted potential.