SATURN 3 (1980) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Stanley Donen
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Produced in the wake of a string of galactic sci-fi cinematic hits and misses, and premiering shortly after the much more successful (and far more acclaimed) ALIEN, SATURN 3 is a British made space opera that was largely panned upon release (the film was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Picture” and its two lead stars also got acting nods for the same). But like many nearly forgotten oddities, SATURN 3 has gathered something of a cult reputation and comes as a surprise Blu-ray/DVD choice from Shout! Factory’s ever growing Scream Factory line.

Sometime in the future, the planet Earth has set up research stations across the solar system. The isolated Saturn 3 food station is on Saturn’s third moon and is run by two sole scientists: Major Adam (Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas, PATHS OF GLORY) and his much younger assistant and lover Alex (Farrah Fawcett, SUNBURN). The couple has been based there for years, and Alex has never even been to Earth. Soon comes the arrival of the pill-popping and ultra cold Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, MEAN STREETS) who has killed the individual who was supposed to take the mission to Saturn 3, and has secretly taken his place. Benson accuses the couple of working too slow and proceeds to construct a robot (part of a new “Demigod Series”) which will take the place of one of them. The resulting robot, an 8-foot mechanical monster named “Hector”, has organically functioning pure human brain tissue to think and is programmed with a link to his creator’s mind. Hector begins to go on a rampage, first killing Alex’s small pooch, and then (since Benson’s lust for her is being transported over to him) begins to assault the naive young woman. She is freed safely, but Adam demands that Hector be dismantled. Later in the night, Hector’s surviving brain tissue commands a number of clunky smaller robots to reassemble him, and reborn, he becomes a bigger threat to Saturn 3’s three-person crew than imagined.

With its storyline centering around a minimalist cast, SATURN 3 was released in the wake of an endless stream of STAR WARS imitations, followed by the ALIEN rip-offs (two bandwagons Roger Corman’s New World Pictures jumped on), so it’s easy to see why the film was quickly dismissed and died at the box office in spite of some major hype in various movie magazines (including Famous Monsters of Filmland). Looking at it 30 plus years later, the film is still flawed but the sometimes violent, sometimes sexual and sometimes psychologically-tinged outer space yarn concerning man vs. machine is more interesting to look at now, in a retro, nostalgic sort of way (especially for those seeking anti CGI futuristic thrills) and there’s a few clever concepts within its framework (though it does bring up thoughts of other previous films like DEMON SEED and SILENT RUNNING). Director and choreographer Stanley Donen was responsible for such Hollywood musicals as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and ON THE TOWN, so the idea of him directing a sensational science fiction flick in the early 1980s was a bit of a stretch. Donen was originally set only to produce, but he replaced original director John Barry (the celebrated British-born production designer of a A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, STAR WARS, PHASE IV, SUPERMAN and many others) after he had a falling out with star Douglas. Barry conceived the original story (back in 1975) and it was turned into a screenplay by Martin Amis (the film was released after Barry’s death in 1979 at age 44).

Although some of the views of space, ships in flight and the various miniature models are unconvincing (especially in light of this being released after STAR WARS raised the bar for such visual effects), the set design is highly impressive (elaborate and colorful and built on the stages of England’s Shepperton Studios) and the massive metallic entity that is Hector (both an actor in a costume and an animatronic prop) is an imposing and original one, even if it harkens back to 1950s B-movie mechanical menaces. Douglas and Fawcett are not nearly as bad as their Raspberry Awards would leave you to believe. During this period, Douglas was doing a string of exploitation films (including HOLOCAUST 2000 and THE FURY) and he was proving that leading men didn’t have to be spring chickens (he was 64 at the time that this was shot). Fawcett was likely cast for her radiant looks and worldwide sex appeal (certainly what the producers, Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, had in mind), but the exploitive elements are played down (don’t expect Farrah to be prancing around in too many skimpy outfits). Keitel, hear making an awkwardly intriguing pony-tailed villain, had his Brooklyn accent re-dubbed by British character actor Roy Dotrice (1972’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT), resulting in some strangely deadpan line delivery. Although the film has some fleeting gore and brief nudity (Douglas’ backside is on display during a fight with his male co-star) the film would likely get a PG-13 today in spite of its MPAA “R”.

Presented in a new High-Definition 1080p transfer in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, SATURN 3 looks great on Blu-ray. With very few blemishes on the source print and just enough of a sheeting of grain to assure the authentic filmic look, the transfer is smooth with vibrant colors and nice textures. Detail is solid and fleshtones appear natural. The English audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio which nicely renders Elmer Bernstein’s grandiose score, sound effects and dialogue into a nice mix. A secondary English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is on hand, and optional English subtitles are also provided. An anamorphic standard definition DVD (using the same HD transfer as the Blu-ray) is also included in the packaging and includes all the extras found on the BD.

A commentary is included with Saturn 3 expert and fan page host, Australian Greg Moss, moderated by film critic David Bradley. Moss explains his early fascination with the film, reading about what was described as a “Frankenstein story in space” and then seeing it at a drive-in double featured with KILLER FISH (which happened to star Fawcett’s ex, Lee Majors). Even though there’s some silent pauses, a lot of ground is covered, since Moss knows practically every detail of the film. He mentions that Sean Connery was originally considered for the role of Adam, and talks about Douglas’ behavior on the set, as well as the trouble that was had operating the Hector prop during shooting. Actor Roy Dotrice is on hand for an interview (6:29) humbly revealing how Donen wanted him to do a more “continental” voice to replace Keitel's Brooklyn accent, and still doesn’t understand why the re-synching was necessary, having a great deal of admiration for Keitel as an actor and seeing no need for it. Special effects artist and Oscar winner (for 1978’s SUPERMAN) Colin Chilvers sits down for another interview (15:55), discussing the shock of Barry’s sudden death and he explains how incoming director Donen choreographed the scenes, and discusses creating the “practical” effects (which he admits intentionally take a back seat to the characters) with the limited time and budget restraints he had to work with. A selection of additional scenes from the network television version (9:55) is also included, mostly extra dialogue and characterization which is shown full frame (there’s some interesting interaction between Adam and Hector, who he is attempting to train, and extended scenes of the conniving Benson and his constant plays for Alex). The “Deleted Ecstasy Scene” (3:32) is an excised bit where Adam and Alex split an ecstasy pill, dance around to disco music as Alex is seen in a sexy and revealing black leather space girl suit (seen in various publicity photos but never in the final film). A theatrical trailer, two TV Spots and a still gallery round out the disc’s supplements. (George R. Reis)