Thursday, December 26, 2013

Culture Shock 12.26.13: Something is still wrong on 'Saturn 3'

For a time she was everywhere. From television to magazine covers to that legendary swimsuit poster, Farrah Fawcett was the sex symbol whose gleaming smile and feathered hair defined the '70s.

It was only a matter of time before she made the jump to the big screen in a big way.

The film was a 1980 sci-fi thriller called "Saturn 3," which gave Fawcett top billing over Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. While critical triumphs like "The Burning Bed" still lay ahead, "Saturn 3" bombed, signaling the beginning of the end of Fawcett's reign as America's Sex Icon.

"Saturn 3," newly released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout! Factory, is a strange and uneven little movie. Some things about it work, but for every success there are two or three (maybe four) failures. Yet because of its star and, more importantly, how it treats her, "Saturn 3" is more intriguing than ever.

It begins promisingly, with an inventively nasty murder. Keitel's mentally unstable Capt. Benson kills another pilot and assumes his identity and mission. The mission is to deliver a robot to an agricultural research station on Saturn's third moon. (Why would anyone build a glorified greenhouse in such a remote place? Best not to dwell on it.)

The research station, carved into the rock beneath the moon's surface, is a paradise. There, Adam (Douglas) and his "Eve," Alex (Fawcett), live a life of leisure while occasionally tending their "garden." For Adam, this is a green and beautiful Eden, far away from an overpopulated and polluted Earth. For Alex, who was born in space, Earth remains a tempting prospect. All that's missing is a snake. When Benson arrives, his Earth speech patterns and Earth habits remind Adam of why he left, while to Alex they're an odd fascination.

Benson is even stranger because director Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") brought in British actor Roy Dotrice to overdub Keitel's voice. Dotrice gives Benson a generic mid-Atlantic accent and mechanically precise diction. It's a controversial choice, but it makes Benson even more of an outsider.

Still, the real space oddity is Hector. He is a towering, lumbering robot with a tiny, ridiculous Erector Set of a head and a hard drive made of real brain tissue. Hector is programmed through direct input from a human brain. Unfortunately, when the brain in question belongs to a madman, well, you can guess where this is going.

To make matters worse, Benson is infatuated with Alex and frustrated that Alex and Adam don't share his free-loving ways. He is incredulous when he learns Alex is "for the Major's consumption only."

A jealous maniac who passes his jealousy on to a hulking robot? What could go wrong?

For her part, Alex is merely an object to be possessed, which in futuristic Earth slang amounts to being "consumed." Alex is protected by Adam, lusted after by Benson and threatened by Hector. She  makes no decisions of her own and might as well be a poster on the wall.

But even passive objects can have power, and Alex/Farrah has the power to drive both man and machine to destruction. She is Helen of Troy as well as Eve, which perhaps explains Hector's name.

The screenplay is by British writer Martin Amis, who later used the experience in his novel "Money." Whether deliberate or not, he makes "Saturn 3" into a commentary on Fawcett's role in popular culture at the time. She is the object of our gaze. Men want her. Women want her hairdresser.

Otherwise, much of "Saturn 3" is a rehash of other films of the period. Adam and Alex's cat-and-mouse routine with Hector takes us back to the dark corridors and service shafts of "Alien."

The Shout! Factory disc is a major improvement over ITC's out-of-print DVD, even if the laughably dated special effects come out worse for the improved color and resolution.

If "Saturn 3" has taught us anything, it's that no one is looking at the spaceship models anyway.

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