Friday, December 26, 2014

From the Archive: Saturn 3 (1980)


Stanley Donen's Saturn 3 is a half-crazy, occasionally-inspired mating of Frankenstein and 2001: A Space Odyssey...one that plays out between three humans and a giant robot against a high-tech, futuristic backdrop.

Taken on those simple terms, the film is enjoyable, literary, occasionally exciting, and consistently watchable, despite all the bad reviews you may recall from its theatrical release.



Saturn 3 depicts the the story of the psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), a scientist who travels to the Experimental Food Research Station on Saturn 3 during a twenty-two day eclipse and communications black-out called "Shadow Lock."

There, the good captain provides "assistance" to two scientists working to alleviate a famine on our overpopulated, polluted planet Earth. Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his young romantic partner, the beautiful and innocent Alex (Fawcett) are wary, however, of Benson's form of help: a colossal humanoid robot named Hector, the first of the "Demi God" series. Hector boasts human intelligence (not to mention human brain tissue...) and can even pattern his personality on the direct input he receives from human beings. Since Benson is psychotic, this means that Hector is also psychotic. In short order, the robot begins to develop the same lustful feelings for lovely Alex that Benson has rudely begun to demonstrate...

Named after the Trojan Prince beaten by Achilles outside the walls of Troy, the robot Hector represents Saturn 3's embodiment of the classic Frankenstein Monster, a lumbering abomination given life by a Prometheus-style scientist, here essayed by the over-dubbed (but still creepy...) Harvey Keitel.


Hector has been created, it seems, to glorify Benson; to prove to skeptical (and off-screen) co-workers that he is a genius. As is the case in Victor Frankenstein's tragedy, there's a high degree of vanity involved in the genesis of this new life. As Victor sought to "bestow animation" upon "lifeless matter," so does Benson seek to introduce intelligence and even "human learning" to cold machinery. And again like Victor, Benson pioneers a "new way," or new science to achieve his aims. Though he is not technically breaching "the awful boundary between life and death" that Shelley artfully described, Benson is breaching the barrier between man and machine.

Hector's biology also merits comparison to the Frankenstein Monster. This Demi-God class robot is a collection of metallic spare parts and pure brain tissue grown in a lab, not organic corpse parts given life.But much like the Frankenstein Monster, Hector boasts the interesting (and unusual...) combination of a fully formed (or adult) physicality with a naive, almost child-like sense of intelligence. And, as the Frankenstein Monster quickly determines, it is "miserably alone," and seeks companionship. 

Interestingly, Hector seeks companionship too...sexual companionship with Alex.

In both stories, the "child" (the monster) turns on the Bad Father, the Creator. In the case of Frankenstein, the rejected/unwanted child draws out the process of killing the parent ("I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart so that you shall curse the hour of your birth...") In Saturn 3, Hector quickly kills Benson and turns his attention towards dominating Alex, a subtle acknowledgment, perhaps of a more sexually-liberated culture in the 1980s.

Going back to 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, one might also be temped to gaze upon Hector as HAL's child: a computer with a menacing, ambulatory physicality to go along with the parent's cold, calculating brain. 

In the Kubrick film, however, one never knows why HAL goes insane and murders the crew of the Discovery.The reasons for Hector's instability are plain in Saturn 3, and they reflect the Frankenstein story again. Benson, like Victor, is a bad father. One who, through his own intrinsic psychological flaws, overreached and was not able to handle the role of parent. And in this case, the son has inherited the father's psychosis.

Saturn 3 also fascinates in the manner it re-purposes the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. In the Old Testament, God created Adam and Eve and provided them a glorious Paradise in Eden. This couple wanted for nothing until a serpent invaded the Garden and tantalized Eve with the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

This simple story is re-cast in explicitly technological (and secular, scientific...) terms in Saturn 3 with a character named, of course, Adam dwelling in isolated bliss with his lover, Alex. Their facility is an Experimental Food Research Station featuring an abundance of greenery, a hydroponics bay that could easily be interpreted as...a "garden."

The film also defines the lives of Adam and Alex as ones of unending bliss. Their facility is like a health spa. They exercise regularly, jogging the curving, empty corridors. They live in love and peace, sheltered away from the modern, polluted world. Alex is a total innocent, never having visited Earth and knowing nothing of its customs.




Into this paradise arrives the Serpent (or Serpents, in this case) -- Hector and Benson. It is not the apple that Benson offers Alex, but lustful sex and recreational drugs, the latter in the form of psychedelic "Blue Dreamers." He awakes in Alex, at the very least, the realization that she has lived a sheltered life. He spawns in Alex a desire to see Earth, which Adam also encourages.

In the coda of Saturn 3, following Adam's sacrifice to defeat Hector, Alex leaves the sealed-up paradise, boards a spaceship and heads for Earth. The Garden is left behind permamently. Alex has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge and now returns to the world of fallen man.

There's a nice, commendable simplicity to the narrative of Saturn 3. Against the plainly mythological and literary backdrops, there are but few characters and locations. The movie cleverly isolates its dramatis personae in a trap within a trap within a trap. They're in a hermetically sealed facility on an inhospitable planet during an eclipse. 

Thus -- again like their Biblical counterparts -- Adam and Alex are really in a sort of "bubble world." The outside world doesn't exist for them, and that means there is no chance of a rescue operation. The future of man (and machine...), it seems, is to be settled here, in this place, with just these few people and their values.

Hector also makes for a powerful, memorable villain. Although he apparently lacks human genitals, Hector has been (inadvertently) programmed with a physical lust for Alex, making him one of the screen's most memorably randy robots (though probably nobody can give Demon Seed's Proteus a real run for his money...). Hector is a murderous child, a sadist, and entirely malicious. At least with the Frankenstein Monster, you felt some sense of compassion. He was "malicious" because he was "miserable." Hector is somehow...colder.

The sets, special effects and costumes in Saturn 3 are all top-notch too, at least for 1980 vintage. And then, of course, there's the late Farrah Fawcett in a central performance: effortlessly exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time.As in her other roles, there was a winsome and fetching quality to Fawcett. Saturn 3 makes fine use of her naturalness, her seeming sin-lessness, even as it exploits her amazing good looks.




Perhaps the aspect of Saturn 3 that I enjoy most involves Adam's journey, however, not Alex's. 

Adam deeply fears contamination from the outside (from Earth). He has thus set up a utopia on Saturn 3, a perfect little existence. While Earth starves, he possesses plenty of food. While lust and casual sex dominate among Earthers far away, Adam has found a perfect, innocent mate who truly loves him. He has attained the goal of intimacy.

But when Hector and Benson arrive, they bring "the tree of knowledge" with them. On Earth, Adam would have feared being at the mercy of society, of the government, of his peers. Well, suddenly, in his perfect world, he is at the mercy of Hector, a psychotic who can control every aspect of his environment. Hector controls the air, the food supply, the temperature...everything. Adam is thus made slave to the very technology he has always feared and disdained, and that's a metaphor for the life he fled: one of regimented control where he was but a cog in the wheel. Perhaps that is the reason why Adam chooses to fight Hector to the death, because like Alex, he too has been ejected from paradise by the arrival of this interloper.




Saturn 3 even closes with a commendable message: that it is the capacity for self-sacrifice that ultimately separates a human soul from artificial intelligence. Hopefully, that's the message that Alex takes back to Earth and preaches. That mankind -- in his ability to put the welfare of those he loves before his own life -- can conquer the machines, overpopulation, lust and the other bugaboos that threaten to destroy a species in perpetual crisis.

With DNA culled from the Old Testament, the work of Mary Shelley and even Stanley Kubrick, Donen's somewhat silly Saturn 3 sure has a "great body." 

May I (respectfully...) suggest...you use it?

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