Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ready Player One still flying the flag for beloved touchstones of the Reagan years, we’re looking back on some unsung gems from the 1980s—the movies from that decade that deserve their own loyal fan followings.
Saturn 3 (1980)
The early part of the 1980s was littered with movies that tried to cash in on the previous decade’s genre hits: the bargain-bin Star Wars clones (e.g., Battle Beyond The Stars), the Jaws-alikes, the Alien wannabes. In the last category, no film had a more fascinating pedigree than Saturn 3. It began as the directorial debut of John Barry—not the composer, but the production designer of Star Wars, Superman, and A Clockwork Orange—but was quickly taken over by Stanley Donen, the musical master behind Singin’ In The Rain and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. The script was written by the British novelist Martin Amis in his sole, ill-fated foray into screenwriting. The tiny cast consisted of Kirk Douglas (who also directed part of the film), Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel, and a towering animatronic robot.
It was, in other words, a who’s who of people who probably had no business making a deep-space horror film—apart from Barry, who exited early in the filming process. So the results are unsurprisingly strange, memorable, and very unlike the haunted-house-in-space vibe of the film it was trying to imitate. For one, Saturn 3 is the rare sci-fi film to present what might be called a “post-1960s future”—that is, one with comfier clothes and more relaxed attitudes to sex and drugs. (Not only does Douglas’ character get stoned on space pills, but the 63-year-old actor even gets a nude scene.)
The subtexts are interesting, too: Alien’s grotesque parody of birth and reproduction swapped for male anxieties about impotence, with strong notes of Old Hollywood technophobia, with the ’50s icon Douglas facing off against an actor of the recent ’70s generation (Keitel, bizarrely dubbed by the British actor Roy Dotrice in a mid-Atlantic accent) and a newfangled special effect. Douglas and Fawcett play a May-December couple of scientist-lovers cohabitating at a small research lab on one of Saturn’s moons. Keitel is the young-ish—and, to Douglas’ aging character, implicitly threatening—interloper, an unstable astronaut who murders his way off a space station in the opening scene with a soon-to-be-killer robot in tow.
It’s all about fears of replacement: robots replacing humans, younger men replacing the old. But while none of it is remotely scary (despite a few moments of gore, most of which is said to have been cut by uncredited producer Lew Grade for being in poor taste), Saturn 3 sure is fun to look at. Apart from the lummoxoid headless robot, the production design—by Stuart Craig, who went on to design all of the Harry Potter movies—is eye-catching: symmetrical, angular space stations; bug-like helmets and spacecraft; strips of electric-blue lighting in the long industrial corridors that are the bread and butter of a movie like this one.
Availability: Saturn 3 can be rented or purchased through Amazon Video. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.