In the distant future, during a time where Earth has become badly polluted and overpopulated, scientific research outposts have been set up throughout the galaxy to try to find a way to aid the beleaguered population still living there. One of these stations, set on one of Saturn's moons, is due for a progress check and Captain James is the man who's been chosen to fly to the distant, remote outpost. However, as he's preparing to depart, he's murdered by Captain Benson, who was the original choice for the mission but was labeled "potentially unstable" on a mental exam and replaced. Taking James' ship and cargo, as well as a large, cylindrical tube he always keeps by his side, Benson flies to the moon and arrives at the Saturn 3 experimental food station, which he discovers is maintained by only two scientists: rugged Major Adam, who's in his early 60's, and the young and beautiful Alex, who's in her 20's. Despite their large age difference, the two of them are lovers and are perfectly content in their isolation on the moon; Benson, however, is troubled by this, especially as he very quickly begins to lust for Alex, and comes across as cold, distant, and peculiar towards both of them, especially Adam, who he feels is obsolete. During the time that he spends at the station, which is during a period of "eclipse" where no external contact is possible for nearly a month, Benson reveals to Adam and Alex that his mission is to help speed up the progress of their research, which has fallen behind schedule, and to do that, he assembles a highly-advanced robot he calls Hector. The first of a new brand of robot called the "Demigod Series," Hector relies on pure brain tissue extracted from aborted human fetuses to function and his programming comes from a direct radio link into Benson's mind. Benson also claims that once he's fully operational, Hector will replace one of the two of them, more than likely Adam, as he knows he's close to "abort time" anyway. In addition to this knowledge, Adam is concerned about what Hector may pick up from his connection to Benson, given how uncontrollable the human thought process is, and his fears soon prove to be justified, as the robot picks up on the captain's lust towards Alex and his propensity for murder. It isn't long before Hector begins acting on his own accord and puts the lives of all three people in danger, with Benson discovering that the robot is now completely out of his control.
Although Adam laments the fact that he couldn't bring himself to leave Benson behind, saying that he's not "updated" enough to commit murder, he comes close to doing so when the deranged captain attempts to force Alex to come with him back to Earth and refers to him as being inadequate in "every way," as well as using her for his own pleasure. Alex pulls him off of Benson before he can strangle and bash his brains in and, afterward, he asks her why she stopped him. Before she can answer, Benson knocks Adam unconscious and tries to drag Alex out to his ship, only for the reassembled Hector to murder him. For the remainder of the film, Adam and Alex find themselves trapped in the isolated station with the deadly robot, who eventually takes control of the entire place, using Benson's voice and likeness, via his decapitated head, to do so. Adam also finds that, during a period of unconsciousness, Hector installed a link to his spine similar to the one Benson had, meaning that the robot intends to access his own brain. Concerned more for Alex than himself, and with no help coming at all, Adam decides to sacrifice himself along with Hector and the link. So, all in all, I think that Douglas does a pretty respectable job with his character (aside from some faces he makes here and there that are unintentionally creepy, like the way he looks at Alex when they're playing chess), which isn't surprising, given what a good actor he was... it's just too bad that the movie is done in such a way that, by the end of the day, I don't care what happens to him or Alex, for that matter.
Unfortunately, his acting is not what everyone remembers about him in this film; rather, it's the fact that, even though he was in his early 60's at the time, he has numerous sensual scenes with Farrah Fawcett, and also that that struggle that he has with Benson that I mentioned up above happens while he's completely naked, giving you a very clear look at his bare behind. This was something that Douglas really wanted, given his obsession with wanting to continue to give off an air of youthful vigor as he got older, and according to Martin Amis, the sci-fi author who was tasked with turning John Barry's first draft of the screenplay into something that would be more attractive to studios, when Douglas was told of Fawcett's reluctance to get naked, his response was, "What do you mean she won’t take her clothes off. She’s only a fucking TV actress. I’ll rip her clothes off!" In fact, when Amis later wrote his novel, Money, his inspirations came from his experience on Saturn 3 and one of the characters, a former big star who's well past his prime but determined to maintain an image of youthful vigor, is purportedly based on Douglas. In any case, Douglas, thankfully, was still in really good physical shape at the time, so it's not quite as uncomfortable as it potentially could've been, and I don't have anything personal against couples who have an age gap between them (for the most part, anyway; Anna Nicole Smith... yeah), but I'm not going to lie, when I first realized the exact nature of Alex and Adam relationship in the film, I was a bit taken aback. Plus, during that struggle, I couldn't help but be horrified at the sight of Douglas' ass, which I wasn't expecting or wanted to see, but, in retrospect, I guess I should be thankful that's as far as it did go.
Let's face it, the reason Fawcett was cast in the movie wasn't because of her talent but because of how popular she was at the time due to her immense beauty and sex appeal, prompting them to put her in as many skimpy outfits as possible. In fact, she only got the script for it because Lord Lew Grade, who was considering developing it since he and Stanley Donen were working together on another movie at the time, happened to be sitting across from her on a plane from New York to Los Angeles (in fact, he had no business hiring her to begin with, since he wasn't yet involved with the movie!) In reading up on the behind-the-scenes stories, I felt even worse for her to learn that, on top of the insecurity she felt about the nudity, she was going through some troubled times, since the last movie she did failed at the box-office and because her marriage to Lee Majors was ending. Her aforementioned insecurity must have been further compounded by how they used her sex appeal to market the movie throughout the world, particularly focusing on a really sexy spacesuit that she wears, along with a really bad hairdo, in a scene that, ironically, was cut from the final film, although a bit of it did make it into the trailer. And as if that wasn't enough, a few years after Saturn 3 was released, Fawcett appeared on Johnny Carson, who teased her about some of the choices she'd made in her film career and she especially squirmed when this was brought up, as she insisted that the script that they started out with was really good. So, while I can't give her acting much credit, I can't help but feel a lot of sympathy for the ordeal she went through during and after this movie.
Harvey Keitel's Captain Benson is shown to be bad news from the very start of the movie, as he takes the place of Captain James (Douglas Lambert), the man who's meant to go to Saturn 3, by using the airlock in the locker room on the space station to suck him out into space and slice him into bloody chunks in the process. His motivation for doing so is due to his failing a mental stability exam that would've granted him the assignment in the first place, although why he wanted the assignment bad enough to murder somebody for it is unclear (it's suggested that it comes from hurt pride over not passing a test, as well as due to disdain for authority on his part). In any case, the minute he arrives at the station, he comes across as a very cold and distant person, almost robotic himself in how he refuses to share a drink with Adam and Alex, is indifferent towards the warm welcome they extend, and makes it clear that their research has fallen behind schedule and that his job is to rectify it. He speaks in a flat, monotone voice that makes him feel even more like a machine, almost never raising it or changing his matter-of-fact inflections, and has overly technical ways of saying things, like when he tells someone not to touch something with the phrase, "No taction contact," or asks Alex, "You have a great body. May I use it?" Speaking of which, it doesn't take him long to form his personal opinions about the two people whose lives he's entered into: he sees Adam as old, obsolete, and unworthy of having such an intimate relationship with Alex, whom he lusts for immediately. Benson's relationship with Hector is just as tense at times, due to the robot's learning from his brain and picking up his own negative personality traits (which are likely not helped by all of the drugs we see that he takes and could have contributed to his failing the stability test to begin with). There's one scene where Benson grills Hector about not speaking, which he believes he can, and when he asks the robot if it's due to something he's done, he himself gets grilled about being a murderer and flunking the mental exam. Benson is also none too pleased when Hector describes Alex as beautiful, saying that it's an idea above his station, and at the end of the scene, Hector says that he is the one who's malfunctioning. Regardless of this, Benson fully intends to use Hector to replace Adam at the station and move in on Alex, but he quickly loses control of the robot and is eventually forced to deactivate and dismantle him. Despite Adam's intention to report his gross incompetence and forcing him to leave as soon as they're out of the eclipse, Benson is undeterred, accusing Adam of being someone who runs from what he can't stand (i.e. Earth), and when he prepares to leave, he attempts to force Alex to come with him, saying that he's taking command. He's so unhinged and single-minded at this point that not even nearly getting his head smashed in by Adam stops him, but he's ultimately killed by the reassembled Hector, who later uses his severed head and voice to take on his identity and become the one in charge at Saturn 3.
Not even Keitel's involvement with the film escaped controversy, as the voice that you hear in the movie is not his own but rather that of Roy Dotrice. The reason for why he was dubbed is another one that's up for debate, as it's been said that Keitel refused to take part in any post-production process, including looping, for some reason. I've read that it was either because Stanley Donen didn't think Keitel's Brooklyn accent fit the character or because Lord Lew Grade and Keitel had a falling out and Grade had his voice dubbed over as a type of payback. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that it's surreal to hear this English voice apparently coming out of Keitel's mouth and that, for better or worse, it does help this role stand out amongst the other, much more famous ones he's played in his career a little more.
Saturn 3's budget was around $10 million and, while not gigantic, it's still substantial for a movie that was filmed in 1979, so you would hope that the money would be up there on the screen. In some areas, it is, but in others, not so much. One area where you can definitely see the money is in the production design and art direction. Stuart Craig, who had worked as John Barry's assistant on Superman, was the production designer here and he did a knockout job with the sets, with the main one being the interior of the Saturn 3 station itself. There are four main sections of the station, all of which are interconnected by these long, winding corridors carved into the rock of the moon, the walls of which are lined with wires, lights, and electronic equipment and a solid walkway on the floor. They're similar to the corridors and hallways you see on the Nostromo in Alien (some have accused this movie of trying to cash in on Alien's success but, while some parts of the tunnels are vaguely reminiscent of H.R. Giger, it hadn't been released yet at the time this was being filmed) but they're not quite as dim, for the most part, and the blue lighting and brightly-colored parts of the equipment make them feel more vibrant. The laboratory where the characters do their work and research is a big room full of equipment and instruments, including two robots of their own (which actually were robots rather than props built for the movie) with a number of plants being grown off in a corner under some lights with big, green tubes next to them, and a liquid-filled area beneath the floor that was referred to by the production as the "sludge pit." An even more impressive area is the main control room, which is this big space full of brightly-lit buttons, switches, monitors, readouts, and control panels, and looks the best when it's lit solely by those lights. The decontamination chamber outside of the airlock is a short tunnel that, while operating, lights up with a bright, kaleidoscope-like pattern of white with purple streaks going along the walls, accompanied by a high-pitched, whirring sound. And finally, the most familiar and inviting parts of the station are Adam and Alex's living quarters, which are these soft, white and green-colored rooms that make up a den, the shower, and the bedroom. All of these sets are well-photographed by cinematographer Billy Williams and they look really good in high-definition, with all the bright and vibrant colors that make up good portions of them.
The exterior of the station and the moon's landscape isn't the most impressive or original set, as it's just a small, dimly lit stretch with dirt, rocky outcroppings, and steam and mist to obscure everything a little bit more, along with a big model of Captain Benson's ship and a large structure buried into the ground that leads towards the base itself. Again, not mind-blowing by any means, but it does fine for what it has to do. What is amazing to look at, though, is the interior of the space station at the beginning of the film, when you see the crew preparing to disembark for their destinations. Just three minutes into the movie, you get this really incredible image of a large, lit walkway with a backdrop of a weird symbol that's made up of a sun-like center with blue and black bars and curves around it. I don't know if that was part of the set or something they put in optically later but the sight of that thing with the silhouetted figures of the crew walking up in front of it is a really cool and memorable one. In fact, if the interiors of the Saturn 3 base are of the "used future" look that was done for Star Wars and then built upon for Alien, then the interiors of this station and the shuttle that takes Alex to Earth at the end of the movie is more reminiscent of the clean, clinical look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it's a nice mixture of noteworthy science fiction design styles. It's just a shame it wasn't done in a better movie.
Aside from the good-looking sets and cinematography, another thing the movie can definitely lay claim to is having a very memorable non-human antagonist in Hector. As I said, his design really stuck with me ever since I first saw those pieces of the movie as a little kid and looking at it now, it's still kind of cool to behold. It's interesting in how he has this big, hulking, humanoid body, with some interesting additions like a very sculpted core and some fit-looking legs, and yet, instead of a head, he has this thin, curved stalk sticking out from the top of the body, the tip of which has a couple of pointed notches that are meant to represent his eyes. In addition, he has very powerful clamps for hands and tubes with blue and orange-colored fluid running across his body, which I guess is either meant to be some kind of lubricant for his innards or nourishment for the living brain that powers him. The effects used to bring Hector to life, led by Colin Chilvers (another person who'd worked on Superman) are also interesting, in that they're a mixture of radio-controlled mechanical effects operated by offscreen technicians, particularly for all of the moments where he uses his hands for something, and suit-work for the full-body shots of him walking around. They're well-done for the most part, although, because of the nature of his construction and the limited technology at the time, Hector often doesn't come across as much of a threat as they want you to believe he is because of how slow and plodding he moves, forcing him to either corner people or catch them off-guard. However, what is unsettling is how, even when he's been dismantled, he still has enough function in his brain to get the station's other robots to help put himself back together. For most of the movie, he's completely silent, with the only sounds he makes being this whirring that his eye-stalk when it moves back and forth or up and down, as well as this crazed, high-pitched sound that he makes whenever something happens that he doesn't like. Benson, however, is sure that he can speak if he wants to, and soon, Hector manages to do just that, imitating the characters' voices perfectly.
While he's really interesting design-wise, when it comes to Hector's actual portrayal in the film, it's something of a missed opportunity in my opinion. I think the idea that he's powered by an actual brain that's been made from the those of aborted fetuses, essentially making him a child when he's first activated, and that his programming is derived from a direct link to Benson's brain through an attachment installed in the back of his head is an interesting one, as it makes for a creative reason for why the robot goes berserk and becomes a killer. However, the motivations for some of Hector's actions are rather muddled. For instance, I'm not entirely sure what led to that confrontational exchange between him and Benson early on, where he repeatedly accuses Benson of being a murderer and admits that he thinks Alex is beautiful. I know it has to do with his link with Benson but this argument sounds like that of two entities who have a long history with each other, even though Hector has only recently been assembled and activated. I don't understand Benson's preoccupation with Hector's not talking and asking if it's something he's done wrong, or why Hector gets so hung up on Benson being the one who's "malfunctioning." Also, Hector's ability to imitate the voices of those around him comes out of left-field, as does his need to take command of the facility. Again, the latter is no doubt something he derived from Benson's unstable mindset but up until that moment where he announces that he's taking command before trying to force Alex to come with him, Benson had never expressed any desire to be the one in charge of the station (and even then, that's not what he was referring to at that point). He'd often made it clear how he found Adam to be obsolete but nothing about wanting to be in command. I guess you could chalk it up to slips in his mind, as Adam mentioned, and a disdain for authority in general on his part, but it doesn't really gel with me. Finally, I think the biggest failing with Hector is that there was an opportunity in a scene that was deleted from the final film (albeit added back in when the movie was played on television) to make him a little more sympathetic, showing him slowly going mad from the poisonous thoughts he's receiving from Benson and the further development of his disdain for Adam and his obsession with Alex. Plus, this scene would have helped clear up some of his other actions and motivations, and they could have gone farther by having him flat-out say that he does not wish to become like Benson, but, as the final film stands, Hector is little more than just a typical homicidal movie monster.
While not a gorefest by any means, there are some instances of graphic makeup effects to be found in Saturn 3 that are effectively gruesome and well-done. In fact, the movie opens with one when Benson uses the airlock in the space station's locker room to murder Captain James so he can take his place. The way it's done and looks is a bit dated but it's still unexpected to see his body shatter into a bunch of hard, bloody pieces when he hits the bars going across the opening to the airlock. One gore effect that I saw on TV back when I was a little kid and which also stuck with me is the shot of the gruesome remains of Alex's little dog, Sally, after she's been mangled by Hector. It's a very brief shot but is still disturbing and hideous to look at, especially if you're an animal-lover, and I'm surprised they didn't cut that when it was shown on MonsterVision, especially given how much Joe Bob complained about how strict the TNT censors were. There's a quick moment where Hector, after he's reassembled himself, attacks Benson and severs one of his hands, sending it flopping to the floor in front of a horrified Alex, but it looks a little rubbery, so it's a good thing they don't hold on it. An effect that does not look rubbery, however, is the sight of Benson's severed, ripped up head sitting atop Hector's eye-stalk, which, like Sally's remains, is a very grisly effect and is helped by the dim lighting of the scene. Finally, while it's not a moment of gore, if you're squeamish about anything that has to do with eyes, you may find yourself squirming from the scene where Alex gets a chip in her eye and Benson forces her to allow Hector to remove it. The shot of his clamp hand slowly approaching her forced open eye is particularly uncomfortable, akin to the infamous slow eyeball impalement from Zombie (albeit with a much better end result for the owner of the eyeball in question).
It's when we get to the optical and model effects that the film starts to run into problems. I would say that maybe 45% of those effects look good, like the opening shot of the space station as it approaches Saturn (as it passes over the camera, comparisons to the Star Destroyer doing the same during the opening of Star Wars is inescapable), that really cool wide-shot of the inside of the station where you see people walking both on the floor below and across the ceiling above, the shots of Captain Benson's ship leaving the station and heading towards the planet, the shots of it taking off and coming down to rest near the Saturn 3 station, and the image of Saturn going into eclipse after the arrival. However, everything else leaves a lot to be desired for, especially during Benson's flight through Saturn's rings and his entering the atmosphere of the moon. It's painfully obvious during the former part that what you're looking at is a miniature spaceship being pulled through a bunch of tiny stones in an underwater tank (I don't know what's worse: this or that pathetic asteroid belt battle in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla) and it's even worse when he flies over the surface of the moon towards the station. The scale in the POV shots showing off the landscape and the station and the shots of the ship traveling right above it is completely wrong, revealing it to be nothing more than a bunch of miniatures (nicely-crafted and detailed miniatures, mind you, but still miniatures nonetheless). Later on, when Adam and Alex try to make it to Benson's ship in order to escape, only for Hector blow it up before they can reach it, the compositing of the model exploding with the real actors in the foreground doesn't look that great, and when a survey team arrives at the station during the latter half of the third act, you get more bad miniature-work and terribly-dated compositing as their ship follows the same trajectory that Benson did. The ending with the shuttle approaching Earth and the shot of the Earth itself is fair enough but you've definitely seen better in other sci-fi movies made around this time.
Bad special effects aside, the biggest reason why I put this as an installment in the Movies That Suck series is because I don't find it to be interesting or engaging in the least. While I can give credit to Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel's acting (in spite of the latter being dubbed), when we get into the meat of the movie's story, I find myself not caring at all what's going on with the characters or the situation they've found themselves caught up in. Most of the time, you're either watching Adam and Alex getting frisky or casually enjoying each other's company, Benson trying to seduce Alex when he's not assembling and programming Hector, or all three of them doing research in the laboratory, and it's not long before I find myself getting tired of it. While I do find Hector's design and the way he's programmed interesting, and I kind of like the talk about what a craphole Earth is and whether or not Alex should visit it, none of this is explored to its full potential and I don't care about the characters anyway, so it probably wouldn't matter even if it was. The story and motivations behind some of the characters' actions being muddled, either through bad writing or scenes that shouldn't have been deleted but were, doesn't help either, and by the time we get to the third act, I find myself to be so sick of it all that I want it to end. Speaking of which, not only do I not find it that interesting as a piece of science fiction, but when it's trying to be a horror movie after Hector goes completely nuts, it's not scary or suspenseful. Watching Adam and Alex run through those corridors, trying to escape Hector, attempt to stop him by dumping him into the foamy liquid underneath the laboratory floor, try to get to Benson's spacecraft outside, only for him to blow it up, and discover that he's wearing the captain's severed head and can now imitate his voice is excruciating to get through when it should be thrilling. The last part of it all, where Hector is holding them hostage within the station, is where I reach the end of my rope, as I don't get why he's suddenly become obsessed with being in command of the place, how he managed to imitate everyone's voices, what exactly he's planning to do with them, especially with Adam and the link he's installed in the back of his head (I know he says he's extracting stuff from his brain but how does he plan to mess with it in order to make him more obedient, as he later prepares to do?), and so on. There probably was a lot more meat to this in the original version of the screenplay and the scenes that were deleted but as the movie stands, it's confusing, nonsensical, and leaves no impact. And by the time we get to the ending where Alex makes it to Earth, I'm far past the point of caring and am just glad that it's over.
I'm also not interested in the vision of the future that the film tries to create, as there have been countless other science fiction movies that have done this so much better. We've seen this scenario, where the Earth has become a very bad place to live with its overcrowding and pollution, and life in space is not the elegant, clinically clean gig that it was often portrayed as in the past, time and again, but this film does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack and the sense of how bad things are that it's trying to get across is barely there. All we get are little discussions about how bad things are back on Earth (I guess the environmental problems it's said to be experiencing is why the image of it at the end looks so dark), musings about whether or not Alex should go to it, hints that Saturn 3 itself is seen by many as the butt-crack of the universe, the notion of certain drugs being used to keep people from going crazy on long trips into space, the notion of replacing what's obsolete (possibly by death, if necessary), and a lot of sex and nudity with Adam and Alex, drug addiction and lust from Benson, and Hector becoming a murderous monster to wipe away the squeaky clean, Star Trek-like impressions of space that have come before, and it amounts to very little in the way of real substance. They also try to give this future its own unique identity, with the look of the spaceships, the spacesuits, and the little tattoos beside people's right eye that, in some way, identifies whether or not they've ever lived on Earth but, while they're interesting design-wise and in the ideas behind them (I do think the spacesuit that Captain Benson wears the pod-like ship that he pilots, and the big station at the beginning are kind of cool), it's not enough to keep this from becoming another dime-a-dozen sci-fi flick set in a dystopian future. I don't come away from this with the feeling of, "God, what a shitty future," the way I do something like Blade Runner, RoboCop, or even the Alien movies, for that matter.
The troubled nature of Saturn 3's production didn't stop when it came down to scoring, either. Composer Elmer Bernstein decided to be really inventive and imaginative when he was hired to do the music for the film, mixing funky rock pieces with bizarre, traditionally grandiose themes you'd expect to hear in a science fiction film like this. However, it seems as though Stanley Donen wasn't taken with this approach and very little of the material that Bernstein created for the music ended up in the final film. As it stands, there's very little actual music in the movie, with the most memorable part of the score being the main theme that opens the film, which sounds like a tweaked version of the classical piece everyone associates with 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the way it starts out with loud horns and has a big, epic sound to it. In addition, you have an usual, electronic part that feels like it belongs in space; low, unearthly sounds that you hear which signify Hector's homicidal tendencies; an effectively ominous and menacing theme when Hector reassembles and reactivates himself after he's been dismantled; an odd-sounding piece with drumming and xylophone-like sounds mixed in with it when Hector is chasing Adam and Alex through the station; and a freakish, nightmarish bit when they discover that the robot is wearing Benson's head atop his eye-stalk. It's good music, overall, but it doesn't have as distinct a sound as it would have had if they'd left in Bernstein's other pieces of music. You can listen to his unused cues on YouTube and they're definitely unique, like this rock guitar bit he goes into following the main opening theme and this out there, psychedelic piece that was played during the deleted scene where Adam and Alex try out one of Benson's "blue dreamers," which is where you can see Farrah Fawcett in that kinky outfit (you can hear a tiny bit of it in the actual movie when they first meet Hector when he comes into their den). Incidentally, some of these unused compositions Bernstein later incorporated into his score for Heavy Metal.