An entertaining mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien released, rather unsuccessfully, to an audience hungry for more action-centric fare like Star Wars, 1980's Saturn 3 was originally intended to be directed by John Barry but he passed away early on in the project and it wound up with Stanley Donen calling most of the shots behind the camera. The movie was a flop at the time but over the years it has found a fan base, thanks likely to an odd cast and some decent effects and miniature work.
When the movie begins we see a rocket readying for takeoff. A man decked out in full astronaut gear with his face covered kills the intended pilot and makes his way off to Saturn 3, a research station where two scientists, an older man named Adam (Kirk Douglas) and a beautiful young blonde woman named Alex (Farah Fawcett), hope to be able to solve some of the Earth's food shortage problems. The man lands and introduces himself as Captain Benson (a dubbed Harvey Keitel) and soon, in his uniquely cold and humorless way, sets about building a large robot. The intent here is to replace the obsolete member of the research team with the robot in order to speed up their work. Benson is able to infuse into the robot, dubbed Hector, some of his own intelligence and personality quirks, but given that we know him to be a murderer, this is obviously not going to bode well for Adam and Alex.
And it doesn't. Soon enough Benson is insisting that Alex let him use her body for pleasure (he tells her that it's customary on Earth for things like that to happen) and trying to get her to pop some pills he calls Blue Dreamers.' Adam isn't particularly keen on Benson's activity and quickly realizes that he's building the robot to get rid of him. After the robot kills their pet dog and tries to have its way with Alex, Adam tries to get Benson to take the robot apart but he's not having any of it and with the robot developing its own sort of intelligence, it won't be long before it sets out to get what it wants.
Though it's easy to see why this picture didn't connect with audiences at the time, Saturn 3 is actually a pretty sci-fi movie with some mild horror elements thrown in here and there. The movie is heavy on dialogue and drama, resulting in some interesting conflict and character development and it puts these qualities ahead of the more sensationalist aspects. As such, you could see why audiences expecting another Star Wars might be disappointed, but taken on its own, this is fairly well made despite the fact that it was done on a modest budget. The picture is well paced and features a great score from Elmer Bernstein as well as some impressive cinematography from Billy Williams (yep, this was shot by the same guy who shot Ghandi!).
The performances here are pretty decent and while the giant killer robot will no doubt be the selling point for most, Kirk Douglas does quite well as the aging scientist. What makes him interesting here is that he knows Keitel's character is right. He's aware of the fact that they're not moving their research along as quickly as they could be, instead he's content to spend his golden years lounging around in bed with a woman much younger than he. He plays the role well, he has that dignity you'd expect from him and we can buy him in the part. Farah Fawcett looks great here, and while her character is naïve in many ways, she plays the part well. She's into Adam but we also realize that since she's never visited Earth she doesn't really have much to compare him to. Adam is aware of this too, which gives their relationship an interesting dynamic. In one way he's almost a father figure to her, but at the same time, they're sleeping together. Keitel, even dubbed as he is here, brings a good tone of cold, calculating menace to his character. He's very unfeeling, obviously capable of murder and not above killing to get what he wants. He uses his unique facial features very effectively, and in short, he looks like a killer.
Some of the miniature work, while not without its own retro charm, looks painfully obvious and there are some effects shots showing various forms of space travel that never quite convince, budgetary issues likely the reason, but outside of that, we get some good acting, an interesting killer robot, some cool sets and a solid score. Yes, it does feel a little derivative at times and won't ever win any awards for originality but Saturn 3 is occasionally smart, more than a little creepy in spots, and overall just an entertaining picture.
Saturn 3 is framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. For the most part, this is an excellent transfer. Eagle eyed viewers might spot a bit of print damage here and there but it's never more than an odd speck or two, the elements used appear to have been in great shape. A few of the shots that use optical effects look a bit grainier than others but this is likely a result of the photography as generally the image is crisp and clean and remarkably colorful (the blues in the hallways of the ship look fantastic). Black levels are nice and strong and skin tones look lifelike and natural. Detail is quite good throughout the movie and there are no obvious problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Texture is also pretty solid here, yeah, Saturn 3 looks great on Blu-ray.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also very good, it's a solid mix that spreads the effects and score around rather well without sounding forced or overdone. For the purists a DTS-HD 2.0 track is included but the added depth from the surround mix is fun. The levels are nicely balanced on both tracks, providing clean and clear dialogue that's easy to follow and understand. The score has nice balance and presence and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion. Optional English subtitles are provided but there are no alternate language tracks or subtitles streams offered.
Saturn 3 fan page webmaster Greg Moss and film critic David Bradley offer up a commentary track for the movie in which Moss explains why he loves this film so much and essentially makes the case for holding it in higher regard than a lot of genre fans seem to. From there he relays a whole lot of behind the scenes information and trivia about the film, covering everything from who did what in terms of the effects work to who was originally cast as the male lead to what it was like on set. There are some moments where the pace slows down and the two run out of things to say but thankfully that's the exception and not the rule and this actually winds up a pretty insightful listen.
Shout! Factory has also included a couple of featurettes, the first of which is with Roy Dotrice, the voice actor who did the post production dubbing for Harvey Keitel's character. He speaks here about why director Stanely Donen wanted Keitel's character to have a more European sounding voice rather than the fairly thick New York accent he usually speaks with and how he was tasked with giving him that voice. The second interview is with special effects man Colin Chilvers who talks for just short of sixteen minutes about his work on the picture. Topics covered here include how Donen was brought on board very quickly to take over the production once original director John Barry passed away and how the production ran short on time and money which lead to some of the effects turning out differently than he had originally envisioned.
Also found on the disc are just under ten minutes worth of alternate footage from the TV version of the movie (mostly just extended bits of dialogue but they're interested to see) and a single deleted scene in which Adam and Alex share a ‘Blue Dreamer' which results in her putting on some space lingerie and strutting around showing off the goods! Rounding out the extras are two TV spots, a theatrical trailer for the movie, menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release, a DVD version of the movie with the same extras is also included in the case.
The Scream Factory Blu-ray release of Saturn 3 is a good one, rolling out the red carpet for a film few likely ever thought would see get the special edition treatment. The audio and video are both very good and the extras pretty solid as well. As to the movie itself? It's quite a bit better than its reputation would have you believe, and it makes good use of three decent leads and offers up some nice atmosphere and cool effects as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.