Thursday, April 20, 2006
Today's awful movie is Saturn 3, an SF movie from 1980 starring Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel, and the legendary Kirk Douglas, in one of his, ahem, lesser roles. Let me start out by saying that I only caught the last half hour or so of this movie, but I really think that was quite enough. At least for my purposes.
The movie falls prey to one of the many curses of b-movie makers: If your budget's tight, the cheapest way to pad the thing out to feature length (other than using stock footage) is to have endless shots of people walking or running down the same corridor, pretending it's not the same corridor. If the actors can emote a little while they're doing this, hey, that's frosting on the cake. I call this a curse because the one unforgivable sin of bad movies (or critically-acclaimed "good" movies, for that matter) is to be boring. People love bad movies for bad dialogue, bad acting, bad special effects, bad plotting, you name it. But nobody watches for the running-down-corridors sequences. I mean, why would you? Saturn 3 has quite a lot of running down corridors. The sets are kind of interesting, at least. It looks like they spend most of their budget on sets, and it shows.
Don't get me wrong, though. Other than the sets, the special effects are really dreadful. Recall that the movie came out in 1980, the same year as The Empire Strikes Back, but you wouldn't be able to tell that by watching. "Hector", the amorous, homicidal robot, is also pretty crappy, right down to the name. I read once that the design of the original iMac was somehow influenced by the set design in Saturn 3, but I'm not buying it. Nothing I saw in the movie looked even remotely like an iMac.
The film also suffers from a less common b-movie curse, that of getting stuck with an a-list (or wannabe a-list) director who wants to make Great Cinematic Art. You'll get some guy who ignores the low budget, untalented talent, and dodgy script, basically the whole essential nature of the film, and tries to do something "meaningful" instead. This never turns out well. The Wikipedia article about the movie suggests it was originally supposed to have a much stronger exploitation angle, with more of a focus on a scantily-clad, or unclad, Ms. Fawcett being menaced by lusty ol' Hector. I'm positive it would've been a much better movie if they'd just embraced the script's innate B-ness and gone with the Farrah-in-peril angle, instead of trying to rip off Alien. Nothing in the movie is even close to being scary enough to pull off an Alien ripoff, and the filmmakers were wrong to try. As for creepy robots go, Hector is even outclassed by Maximillian, the baddie bot from Disney's abysmal Black Hole.
The movie does get a few points for starring an aging big-name actor. The movie isn't able to make us care for its characters, but Kirk Douglas the actor inspires a great deal of sympathy, even pity. He grits his teeth and slogs his way through this mess of a film, giving the audience somebody to root for. You want to yell "Cut!" and hand the guy a glass of bourbon to steady his nerves for the next scene.
Farrah Fawcett was cast for sex appeal, but wasn't used to advantage. I understand there's a very brief bit of skin somewhere in the movie, but it must be in the part I missed. She spends the last half hour being completely helpless, nothing but run, cower, run, cower. Maybe the movie's an Alien ripoff, but her character's certainly no Ripley. In this respect, the film hasn't aged well.
I'm afraid I missed Harvey Keitel's performance completely. I'm not all that broken up about it, though. He always plays the same guy, no matter what the movie's about, so simply knowing he's associated with the film somehow gives the same effect as actually seeing him on screen. Your imagination can fill in the blanks.
When Kirk finally sacrifices himself to destroy the robot, the film both wins and loses points. It loses points because strapping dynamite on yourself, and tackling the robot so you both tumble into a nearby tank of water and then explode is a really low-tech way to off a robot. I don't ask for a lot of creativity in bad movies, but offing the baddie is the most important moment in the whole movie, bar none. It's the big payoff your viewers have been waiting for, impatiently, for the last 90 minutes or so. It's the one reason they stayed awake all that time, so you really owe it to them to deliver something. If the movie was being made today, they'd do this part better. We can at least be sure the exact means of dispatching Hector would be different, so as not to remind viewers of a suicide bombing or anything.
On the plus side, when the big explosion does happen, you get shot after shot of water and broken robot bits flying through the air. In slow motion, no less. It's practically a b-movie cliche: They could only budget for that one big explosion, so they're going to show you every last frame of footage they have of it, however long that takes.
The ending's kind of a downer: Farrah arrives at the Earth, which she's never visited before, and sits there gazing out the window and moping because poor ol' Kirk's out of the picture. The spaceship glides towared the Earth, as mounting tense music blares on the soundtrack, as if building to some sudden surprise. And then the film just ends, without anything else happening.
Not everyone hates the movie. For some people it's quite the opposite, and I can respect that. There are a few movies out there where I get to be the lonely voice in the wilderness, after all. Here are two positive reviews of the movie. for the sake of counterpoint.