Saturn 3Today I watched Stanley Donen’s 1980 science fiction thriller, Saturn 3, not for its good reputation but, actually, the reverse. The screenplay was written by novelist Martin Amis – his only such venture. He would later claim that not much of his original screenplay survived and used this as an alibi for, despite featuring a strong cast – Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel – the film was, as they say, not a critical success. It is, at least, an interesting exercise in what might have been. Douglas’s performance never quite gels. Farrah Fawcett is demeaned as a frail, frequently screaming beauty (the contrast with Sigourney Weaver’s role in Alien, screened just the year before, is stark) and, strangely, Harvey Keitel, playing a homicidal sociopath, never really rises above the wooden (not least because his voice was, for reasons that escape me, dubbed over by British actor Roy Dotrice). The film’s budget was cut back and the special effects clearly suffered – a disadvantage in the era of  Alien and Star Wars, but that is surely not the whole explanation. The film has its moments. Was it, I wonder, the first to feature ‘brain links’ at the base of the skull (later to become ubiquitous in films like The Matrix and series like Real Humans)? Whether derivative or not (a basic plot element is a robot with a mind of its own), the film certainly genuflects to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (The following exchange between the willful robot, Hector, echoing Hal, and Harvey Keitel’s sociopath, Benson, is one of the comic highlights of the film: Benson – ‘You’re malfunctioning.’ Hector – ‘No, you are.’) In his musical score, for example, the accomplished Elmer Bernstein deliberately nods at Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. In any case, the opening scene, with an extraordinarily lengthy space ship hoving slowly and continuously into view from the top of the screen, is surely a homage to Kubrick’s Discovery One and just as surely among the targets in the opening sequence of Mel Brooks’s spoof Spaceballs. By coincidence, I have just read, as background research for a character, Robert D. Hare’s seminal work about psychopaths, Without Conscience. Donen’s (or Keitel’s) error is to make the sociopathic Benson strange from the outset for, in reality, psychopaths are all too plausible and glib. Their strangeness only becomes apparent in retrospect – when it’s too late, whereas Douglas and Fawcett are put on their guard from the moment Keitel’s character first appears.