Saturn 3 (1980) should have been a good picture. All the makings are there: spectacular effects, beautifully conceived graphics and a plot with possibilities. Yet, somehow, the film manages to lose its way in pretentious byways and a jerky allusiveness to other types in the genre without ever making it clear just what the point of all this may be.
A Captain James, setting out for Saturn 3 where a hydroponics installation is falling behind in its production of food for a starving earth, is murdered by an interloper. The latter takes his place on the space ship carrying a new generation of computerized robot (the “demigod” series) whose brain is to be programmed by man’s brain. Arrived on Saturn 3, the captain meets Major Adam and Alex (they dressed in white and the captain in black – here the heavy-handed semiotics of color just in case you need it to sort out the good guys from the bad), and a love triangle quickly develops. The captain assembles the robot and begins to program it through a transfer of his thoughts by way of radio signals from his own brain, and the rest is … well, the ending won’t be revealed here, but it is a spacey version as it were of head-them-off-at-the-pass.
There are cute but bombastic plays on both literary and cinematic antecedents: Genesis (innocent Adam and Alex clearly live in a kind of garden of Eden into which the reptilian captain with his new knowledge intrudes), the Homeric Iliad (the robot’s name is Hektor, and we twice are told the story of the sack of Troy), Frankenstein (the robot goes out of control), 2001 (Hektor is a teratogenic mutant of Hal) and Star Wars (the special effects). There are also strong overtones of the 1960’s comic book Magnus, Robot Fighter at work in this story (I in fact published an academic paper on this wonderful series — “Magnus Robot-Fighter: The Future Looks at the Present through the Past,” Journal of Popular Culture XII:4 [Spring 1979], pages 702-720). Not that such references are wrong or uninteresting, but they should have some organic function in the laying out of the narrative. Here, however, it is pitifully unclear just what that function is over and beyond a self-conscious smugness.
The captain who assembles Hektor is evil; therefore the robot becomes evil. The captain lusts for Alex, and so the robot becomes lecherous, even attacking her at one point. Because food is scarce on earth, the captain obviously has in him a strong craving for meat, and the robot seems to have hooked into this appetite. There is certainly the suggestion that Hektor killed the dog Sally because it thought it could eat the hapless canine, and in the same way it seems that the captain is himself killed because he is meat, and troublesome meat at that. For the captain had tried to destroy his creation, but since it knew how it was put together it simply rebuilt itself, phoenix-like, from the dismembered pieces of metal, tubing and electronic components.
The acting in the film is nothing to write home about. Adam is played with journey-man competence by an amused Kirk Douglas, and his human ability to outwit the cybernetically clever monster and do final battle with it are traditional part and parcel of the heroic typology. The captain (Harvey Keitel) is best as a type, being just sinister enough to appear rational yet clearly over the edge. Alex (Farrah Fawcett) runs, jiggles, shows teeth, widens eyes, tosses hair, talks husky and so is still pure Charlie’s Angel.
What is the point of this movie? As best as I can determine it has something vaguely to do with man over-reaching himself and his evil being levered to even greater evil by an unwise reliance on technology and a thoughtless jettisoning of old ways. Although that is a notion already well entrenched in Western consciousness even before Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound two and a half millennia ago, it is not an unworthy one nor is it one without very real relevance to the contemporary world. Thus, at one point it seems as though the robot has completely taken over the humans and their capacity for independent and informed action. But it is surely ingenuous to take refuge in the Luddite’s cherished solution to complex technological problems and turn romantic technoclast, as happens in this film. Indeed, the central issue that inspired the creation of Saturn 3 and the captain’s visit to it, the need to increase food production for earth, is completely forgotten by the end of the movie. All we get is Alex on a space ship returning to earth and marveling at seeing it for the first time. End of picture.
Well, it’s all in good fun, I suppose, and if you can forget about the plot (which shouldn’t be too hard to do), you can enjoy some very fine effects. In fact, the real stars in this movie are the space ships, set designs, and Hektor’s relentlessly whining servo-mechanisms.