Saturn 3 (1980) ***Ĺ
Hereís another movie that apparently nobody in the world but me likes, but which I like a great deal. In some ways, Saturn 3 is just another damn Alien rip-off. Itís got the inexplicably ill-lit corridors full of pipes and ductwork, itís got a nearly unstoppable monster stalking those corridors in pursuit of a few humans who are woefully ill-equipped to deal with it, and there are even a few points of similarity between the design of this monster and that of Gigerís alien. But Saturn 3 is also a very interesting take on the mad computer theme, and is nearly unique in offering a compelling, logical reason for the machine in question to go mad in so distinctly human a way. In fact, the only complaint Iíve ever heard about Saturn 3 that I can at all agree with is the oft-voiced opinion that Kirk Douglas was, in 1980, a bit too old to be spending so much time in front of a camera in his underwear or less.
You can tell Star Wars had happened recently from the way Saturn 3 opens with a huge-ass spaceship cruising slowly into the shot from above the frame. Onboard this huge-ass spaceship is a man named Captain James (The Hungerís Douglas Lambert), who is about to depart from it in a shuttle roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and go to space station Saturn 3. James is in the locker room suiting up for the trip when a colleague of his, Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, of Star Knight and From Dusk Till Dawn), who was turned down for Jamesís mission on the grounds that he is ďpotentially unstable,Ē walks in wearing a full space suit, opens the airlock, and watches contentedly as James is sucked out into the void. (We wonít go into what possible reason the big shipís designer might have had for putting an airlock to space inside the goddamned locker room...) Benson then picks up the large chrome cylinder James had just taken out of his locker, and hops aboard the shuttle, passing himself off as its rightful passenger.
So what is space station Saturn 3? Itís an agricultural research installation on one of Saturnís larger moons (nobody ever bothers to identify it), where Major Adam Something-or-Other (20,000 Leagues Under the Seaís Kirk Douglas, who had recently entered that phase of every actorís career when appearing in Holocaust 2000 starts sounding like an okay idea) and his assistant, Alex (Farrah Fawcett, of Loganís Run), are doing hydroponics research in an effort to relieve the nearly crisis-proportion food shortage back on Earth. Benson (well, okay, so it was supposed to have been James) has been sent to Saturn 3 because the bosses back home donít think their work is progressing fast enough, that the project is too big for just two people.
Now if thatís true, surely three people arenít going to be much better, but it isnít so much Benson whoís supposed to be helping out as it is that thing in the cylinder. The object itself is about the size of a scuba tank, and it is filled entirely with culture-grown human brain tissue and filaments of copper wire. This somewhat ghoulish contrivance is the central processing unit of Hector, the prototype of a new generation of robotsó the alarmingly named Demigod Series. With a real, living brain doing the thinking, Hector will be far more adaptable than any previous artificial intelligence, and can even be programmed with a personality. Now considering that Hector, once assembled, will stand about seven feet tall and possess superhuman strengthó to say nothing of the fact that we just saw the man whoíll be programming it commit murder in order to get his jobó how many of you think this is actually a good idea? Thatís about what I thought.
In fact, Captain Benson is just about the last person on Earth (or Iapetus, or Titan, or wherever the hell this is supposed to be) Iíd want writing Hectorís program. He certainly is a twitchy little fuckó those hallucinogenic drugs heís always taking might go some way toward explaining tható and he displays absolutely no sign of conscience, compassion, or any recognizable human emotions at all beyond lust and jealousy. And naturally, Benson pops a huge boner for Alex the moment he lays eyes on her. Well, it may come as a shock to Benson, but Alex is quite happy with Adam, who is decent, and civilized, and not a pill-popping murderer. Not only that, but considering the sheer amount of time Adam and Alex spend in bed together, showering together, and feeling each other up in spare moments here and there (weíre talking easily a quarter of the movie, here), Benson canít even rely on his comparative youth to give him a romantic advantage. So when we learn that Benson programs Hector by plugging him into a quarter-inch coaxial jack that has been surgically implanted in his spinal cord, we know it canít be long before Hector starts acting as Bensonís equivalent to the Id Monster from Forbidden Planet.
Come to think of it, thatís a particularly apt comparison, because as Dr. Morbius could have told Benson, id monsters have an unpleasant habit of turning on their creators. In this case, the problem is that Hector now has the hots for Alex too, and the robot regards Benson as just as much of a competitor as Adam. So when Hectorís jealous rampage begins in earnest, Benson is going to be just as much of a target as the older man. Why is there never a flamethrower around when you really need one?
There are three things in particular that endear Saturn 3 to me. First, I like the fact that the ridiculously tiny cast precludes any of the characters being used as Expendable Meat; any time Hector goes after anybody, his target is going to be someone in whom we have some sort of investment. Second, Hector is really scary. His body panels are sculpted to resemble human musculature, and between that and the hundreds of tubes full of red and blue hydraulic fluid that cover his body, he looks alarmingly like a very large man who has been skinned. And whatís more, the robot has no real headó just a tiny binocular surveillance camera on a jointed metal stalk mounted between his shoulders. Finally, Saturn 3 offers the rare joy of seeing a mad machine movie in which the machineís psychosis makes sense. Though Hector is a robot, he is not really a computer in the usual sense. Because his central processing unit is a synthetic organic brain, one would logically expect his thought process to resemble that of a human being, in ways that a digital electronic computerís never could no matter how intelligent it might be. And because Hector is programmed by patterning his own synapse network after that of his human operators, one would also expect Hector to develop a personality fundamentally similar to that of whomever did the programming. Saturn 3 thus avoids the most common pitfall for the mad computer movie, the inexplicable anthropomorphosis of the machineís mind. Hector is allowed to act human because, in his mind at least, he is human. And because the mind after which he patterned his own belongs to a jealous, sex-obsessed psychopath, Hector is allowed to be one of those, too. In this context, the sheer impossibility of Hector ever getting what he wants from Alex simply makes the whole concept more horrifying; the robotís human brain permits him to be truly insaneó to lose touch completely with realityó just like a real human being.