Saturn 3: the 1980s' weirdest sci-fi movie?

Feature Ryan Lambie
3 Feb 2016 - 06:13

A killer robot powered by baby brains. Kirk Douglas wrestling in the nude. Ryan revisits the very weird 80s sci-fi movie, Saturn 3...

Some movies aspire to strangeness. Other movies have strangeness thrust upon them.

Saturn 3, released in 1980, was an intensely strange film. But unlike, say, Altered States (also released in 1980) it wasn’t made by a filmmaker with a taste for the oblique or the outre. Unlike Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980 again), Saturn 3 wasn’t a low-budget shocker made in a hurry, but a relatively expensive exercise created by some of the most seasoned filmmakers in the business at that time. (For frame of reference, Saturn 3's budget was broadly the same as Alien’s, released less than one year earlier.)

On the surface, Saturn 3 sounds like a perfectly reasonable recipe for an intense sci-fi horror flick. It’s about a pair of scientists (played by Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett) who work on an orbiting outpost parked somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn. They live an isolated yet relatively comfy existence with their cute dog, until one day Harvey Keitel turns up and assembles a robot. Both Keitel and the robot turn out to be evil. You can probably guess what happens to the dog.

You can see what Saturn 3‘s producer Lew Grade (who was also embroiled in the making of the incredibly expensive adventure film Raise The Titanic at around the same time) saw in it. The bare bones of the story took the haunted house in space trappings of Alien and fused them with the rampaging AIs of 2001: A Space Odyssey. and the schlocky Dean Koontz adaptation, Demon Seed.

The film that actually emerged from its difficult production is a bizarre, ungainly beast - sometimes slow and daft, at other times shambling and unintentionally comical. One or two moments are surprisingly unsettling. To get a true idea of how strange Saturn 3 is, consider the following...

Its director was the “King of Hollywood musicals” who had no prior interest in sci-fi

Who better to direct your space horror epic than the choreographer and filmmaker behind such classic Hollywood musicals as Singin’ In The Rain and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers? It’s like getting Rob Marshall in to make a Saw sequel.

To be fair to the eminent filmmaker Stanley Donen, he only ever intended to produce Saturn 3 for his old friend, John Barry.

Barry - not to be confused with the composer of the same name - was the production designer behind the original Star Wars, for which he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Barry came up with the concept for Saturn 3, a low-budget genre movie that Donen suggested Barry direct himself. But when, two weeks into filming, Barry walked away from Saturn 3's production, Stanley Donen was forced to step in as director.

Still, Donen appeared to attack his first ever sci-fi project with enthusiasm. He said he’d seen Alien a few weeks before filming began in a 1980 interview with Starlog Magazine, and that he liked the 1950s Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby sci-fi horror, The Thing From Another World. There was one thing that seemed to bother Donen just a little, though: he was making a “terror movie” with only three human beings in it. Could that trio generate enough tension for an entire feature?

Alien, I guess, had about eight or nine characters, which is a nice handful,” Donen said. ”We‘ve really got just three. It was worrisome, but it was the nature of the idea. We were off and running before anyone knew what was going on...”

The script was written by a young Martin Amis

While the idea for Saturn 3 was John Barry’s, Donen suggested handing the task of polishing the script to young novelist Martin Amis (son of Kingsley and author of The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies and Other People, among other things). According to this superb article about the making of Saturn 3, Amis had an interest in science fiction, but hadn’t written a screenplay before.

Not that it was Amis’ fault that such a weird film came out of the creative stew. His original draft went under a completely different title - The Helper - and it was this slab of text that interested producer Lew Grade in making the movie. That script in turn managed to hook the interest of TV actress Farrah Fawcett, who years later said in an interview that The Helper was “a lot different from what we ended up shooting.”

The script was also rewritten by unnamed parties after Amis had completed his draft. Writer Steve Gallagher, who wrote the novelisation of Saturn 3, described the version of the script he worked from as “terrible” and “truly inept.”

“That may not be Amis’ fault,” Gallagher said. “Years later I met someone who’d worked on the production and she told me that every script doctor in town had taken an uncredited swing at it, so it’s impossible to say whether it was stillborn or had been gangbanged to death.”

Kirk Douglas insisted on taking his clothes off

The ordeal of writing Saturn 3 clearly left a mark on Amis' consciousness. In 1984, he penned the novel Money, which was directly inspired by his brief spell as a screenwriter on a multi-million-dollar movie. Money is about a director who embarks on a doomed attempt to make his first feature film, which undergoes a title change and sees its production mired in a series of unforeseeable setbacks - not least the antics of one Lorne Guyland, an ageing actor who's determined to take his clothes off in the movie as often as possible. Guyland, it seemed, was determined to prove that he still had a modicum of youthful virility in every scene.

You've probably gathered by now that Guyland was based on Kirk Douglas. Amis admitted as much to The Independent in 2007:

"Loren Guyland was, let us say, inspired by Kirk," Amis said. "He didn't go nude for me but, on the set, he was always ripping his clothes off. Movie stars are funny that way, or they used to be..."

Amis then goes on to describe a bizarre evening meal with Harvey Keitel at a posh London restaurant, where Harvey Keitel sat topless at the table "throughout." He also recalls a moment on the set of Saturn 3, where Kirk Douglas admitted to outgoing director John Barry, "I'm unbelievably insecure."

"[Douglas] was, again, naked at the time," Amis said.

Saturn 3 features a robot called Hector, powered by baby brains

Yes, you read that correctly. Hector, a colossal "Demi-god Series" robot assembled by Harvey Keitel's sinister Captain Benson, is powered by brain tissue somehow extracted from human foetuses. Given that this nine-foot-tall spectre is supposed to replace one of the scientists on the Saturn station, you'd think that Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett's characters would be unnerved enough already. But one quick reprogram from Benson later, and Hector's turned into a rampaging monster that lusts after Fawcett.

As batty as it all sounds, Hector's nevertheless a pretty cool-looking robot. Imposing, complex and eerily headless, Hector was one of the most expensive elements in Saturn 3's $10m production. Several versions were built, most of them radio-controlled and operated by a crew of 20. Getting Hector to do as he was told, however, brought its own challenges.

"We had hilarious problems with it," Donen told Starlog. "When I wanted it to pick up a table, everything slid off onto the floor because it had no way to keep the table level..."

Then there was a frankly terrifying scene where Hector's required to remove a splinter from Fawcett's eye - a scene that must have been as uncomfortable for the actress as it was for the audience. "It has pincers which are used to take something from Farrah's eye," Donen explained. "There is no 'man in the hand'; it is all mechanical."

Harvey Keitel had his voice dubbed by Roy Dotrice

With a killer robot on the rampage and Harvey Keitel being alternately shark-eyed and deranged, you might think that Saturn 3's a solid cult gem in the making. Yet despite some impressive production design and some comfy slacks for Kirk Douglas to wear between shower scenes, the movie's mired by wooden dialogue and mystifying editorial decisions.

Chief among them: Harvey Keitel's dialogue is entirely dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice, veteran actor of everything from Space 1999 to Game Of Thrones. The story goes that Keitel refused to go back to loop in his voice during Saturn 3's post-production, so Dotrice was brought in to dub the dialogue instead.

The result is a vocal performance that resembles something from an old kung-fu movie; certainly, cringe-inducing lines like "Your body is very beautiful. I'd like to use it" don't sound any more poetic when uttered in a clipped mid-Atlantic accent.

We can only wonder what might have happened had John Barry had remained with the production. His genius is certainly there to be seen in Saturn 3's magnificent sets, and the movie constantly hints at wider, more interesting ideas that are introduced but barely explored. What are those strange insignias seemingly tattooed on the characters' faces? What ecological disaster has left the Earth in such disarray that, as Benson hints in one scene, its inhabitants have resorted to eating dogs?

Accounts differ as to why Barry left the movie. There's the suggestion that he was fired when the production fell behind; another story goes that he fell out with Kirk Douglas. Whatever the reason, Barry joined the production of The Empire Strikes Back for a brief spell as a second unit director, before tragically dying of meningitis in May 1979.

Barry's vision for Saturn 3 certainly sounded more nuanced than the fairly straight killer robot movie we ultimately got. He imagined Hector as an innocent Frankenstein's monster - a creature that inherits the flaws of its maker. Donen himself admitted that the story was changed heavily as the movie came together; "We went through all sorts of thoughts," Donen said after Saturn 3 wrapped. "There were times when we had a story where no one was the villain..."

Deleted scenes, strange outfits and nude wrestling

Instead of the low-budget, intriguing sci-fi thriller John Barry had first dreamed up years before, we got the relatively pricey, starry and somewhat kitsch version of Saturn 3 brought to the screen by Donen. Even as the budget mounted, it seems that nobody could quite decide what it was they were making. Was it a tense sci-fi horror, or a camp adolescent fantasy designed to appeal to young men?

Shots like the one above suggest something a bit more artistic than a B-movie romp. But then again, there's also the bizarre - and now infamous - production photo of Farrah Fawcett in a decidedly kinky leather outfit and suspenders. The scene featuring that outfit was ultimately cut from the movie at Fawcett's behest, but it was frequently replicated in Saturn 3's posters and publicity stills - to the point where a partially-clad Fawcett gained more prominence than the killer robot.

Fawcett's space lingerie wasn't the only thing to get snipped out of the movie. The great Elmer Bernstein's score went largely unused, and a couple of graphic scenes of violence wound up on the editing room floor - one of them depicting Benson being eviscerated by Hector. The chopping, changing and cost over-runs were such that a couple of effects shots were even cribbed from an episode of Space 1999.

It's fair to say that critics didn't exactly warm to Saturn 3, and the movie's tagline - "There's some THING wrong on Saturn 3!" soon became a stick to beat it with. One review, titled "It's true, there's something really wrong with Saturn 3" described it as "cosmically inane." Another, with an almost identical title, compared Saturn 3 unfavourably to Alien, stating that it had "all of that film's gore but none of the suspense." 

Saturn 3 wasn't exactly the sci-fi blockbuster its makers might have hoped. Neither broad and upbeat like Star Wars nor as claustrophobic and disturbing as Alien, it instead became one of the great oddities of 80s science fiction. This is, after all, a movie which features such bizarre lines as "No taction contact!" and "That was an improper thought leakage."

Then there's the bizarre scene in which Kirk Douglas (nude, of course) chokes out Harvey Keitel after he utters the line, "You're inadequate, Major. In EVERY department."

Saturn 3's by no means a classic, then, but it is undoubtedly one of the most weirdly fascinating sci-fi misfires of the 1980s.

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