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Schlock & Awe: SATURN 3

Sometimes you look at a list of people involved in a movie and you think, “that can’t possibly fail,” and then, it does. On paper, it ought to be an out-and-out success, but for some reason, it just bites the big one. This happened fairly recently with The Counselor, which was astonishingly bad, but it’s not a new occurrence by any means. One of the weirder examples of this came when Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel co-starred in producer-director Stanley Donen’s bizarre mess of a sci-fi thriller, 1980’s Saturn 3, which boasts decent sets, an okay premise, a fairly sinister robot, and even a score by Elmer Bernstein, but can’t overcome simple things, like story and acting.

Stanley Donen is the veteran of dozens of classic movies from the ’40s onward as a director, producer, and choreographer. He directed such hits as Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, Bedazzled, and many more. He won an honorary Academy Award in 1998 for his lifetime achievement and he’s been honored by over a dozen other organizations for his excellence in the film industry. All of this is to say that it really doesn’t make sense for him to direct a movie like Saturn 3, a crappy sci-fi/horror movie blatantly capitalizing on the success of Alien.


Well, to be fair to the great man, he wasn’t meant to direct. The film was the brainchild of Academy Award-winning art director and production designer John Barry, who had never directed before and was eager to get behind the camera. Donen agreed to produce the film and be around for moral support. However, it didn’t take long for the out-of-his-depth Barry to begin butting heads with star and notorious getter-of-his-own-way Kirk Douglas, and so Barry left the movie and Donen stepped in. To say that the director wasn’t the right fit for this type of picture is an understatement, but that’s not even the half of the insanity of Saturn 3.


The film follows Douglas as Adam, the head of a research facility on one of Saturn’s moons. The facility’s crew consists of Adam himself and his partner/lover Alex, played by Farrah Fawcett in all her feathered-hair glory. Alex has never been to Earth, apparently, and often dreams of it. They spend their days doing whatever sciencey stuff the story requires and having May-December sex when they are interrupted by the company inspector, Benson (Harvey Keitel), a psychopath whom we’ve already seen brutally murder the mission’s original inspector by sucking him into an overhead fan.


On the surface, Benson is very by-the-book and is always screaming about things not being up to code and whatnot, but he’s also a huge skeeve who continually tries to talk Alex into sleeping with him and kicking Adam to the curb. Benson has brought with him an 8-foot-tall robot named Hector, which is a “Demigod Series” machine running on the brain tissue of (I’m not kidding) human fetuses and programmed via a direct link to Benson’s brain. This would normally not be much of an issue, but since Benson is a deranged egomaniac who has the hots for Alex, soon the robot does too. Hector goes rogue and then it becomes a 2-on-1-on-1 fight for supremacy, as the men all vie for Alex. It’s not a pretty, or particularly enlightened, attitude.


So, you’ve got your main character who is old and sleeping with a much younger, impressionable woman, you’ve got your bad guy who is a murderous sex pest, and you have a robot with the memories and tendencies of a murderous sex pest. This is a salacious movie, no question about it. Even if there’s nothing particularly explicit in it, the implications of the lecherous nature of the three male characters is enough to make you feel pretty gross all the time. Fawcett was 33 at the time, but she comes across as a lot younger and more innocent, which just makes the proceedings all the creepier. And the three decade age gap between her and Douglas is not lost on anyone.


The other weird thing about the cast is Keitel, but more so what they did to him than anything he actually did. The whole movie was filmed and edited, but the film’s executive producer, Lord Lew Grade, decided he didn’t like Keitel’s very pronounced Brooklyn accent, so he had Donen redub every single line of the actor’s dialogue. Actor Roy Dotrice, an Englishman, was brought in to do a mid-Atlantic American accent for Keitel’s every utterance. He was also asked to add lines that weren’t in the original script during times when Keitel isn’t in shot but is still in the scene. It’s really quite bizarre.


The special effects in the movie are very clearly designed to emulate Star Wars, which was still the gold standard of space effects at the time. Some of the matte paintings and landscapes are good, but a lot of the other stuff just looks fake. There’s a way to shoot models to give them a heft and a size they don’t actually possess, but here they really feel like pieces of plastic or metal being pushed in front of a camera. There’s a shot in which Keitel’s shop goes across the Saturn moon’s surface and it may as well be a ping pong ball on a piece of string.


There’s not much to recommend about the movie, with the exception of the Hector robot itself. Clearly, it’s just a guy wearing a suit, but the design is weirder than that, which makes it interesting. His “head” is a tiny camera on a pivoting, serpentine neck, which looks very strange, given the strongman nature of the rest of the body. Why a thing needs to look like it has muscles is beyond me, but it’s kind of a neat idea to have huge body, tiny head. And weirdly, Donen, along with Bernstein’s music, is able to instill a lot of pathos in the eyes of the robot, even though the eyes are literally just yellow lights.


That aside, Saturn 3 is supremely silly and slightly creepifying. Most of the end of the movie makes no sense, and it’s pretty clear stuff was cut out, either in the editing stage or before it was ever shot. I felt at one point that I’d fallen asleep and missed 5 minutes of exposition, but I hadn’t. It was just Saturn 3 playing tricks on me. This is a movie nobody puts on their resume, even if it must have seemed like a sure thing to someone at some point.

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  1. CJ says:

    Besides some of the best sets for a cheap sci fi movie, ,along one of Bernstein’s better soundtracks., SATURN 3 is a classic example of an epic fail not due to casting (even if Mr Douglas’s need to go nude is annoying) nor a Robot gone bad , but an incomplete script and scenes filmed and cut leaving plot holes from hell!

    Please DO cover EVE OF DESTRUCTION (your female Terminator (lol), poor Gregory Hines)

  2. I remember watching this when I was about 9 years old on my little black and white TV in the 80s. I remember thinking that it was awful even at the time, but back then I would consume anything even remotely Sci-Fi and enjoy no matter how bad it was. Such movies included Zardoz, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Dune and Flash Gordan

  3. Phil says:

    It’s probably about time to start talking about EVE OF DESTRUCTION. A lot of people forgot about that.

  4. Phil says:

    I remember this. There was a sci-fi presentation or something at Cerritos Mall back in the early 80s where they brandished nothing but sci-fi movie posters. The first time I’d ever heard of SOYLENT GREEN, SATURN 3, WESTWORLD and the like. And SATURN 3 was just odd for a poster because it was just an image of a huge robot just standing there. As a child I was kind of scared of it but vexed. Eventually, I saw it on KCOP one Saturday afternoon and the one thing I always remember, not the tit shot, but the robot’s various mechanisms trying to pick a piece of debris out of her eye.