Update: February, 5, 2020: We lost Kirk Douglas today at the age of 103.
His filmography is extensive, with Academy Award nods for 1949’s Champion, 1952’s Bad & the Beautiful, and 1956’s Lust for Life, for which he also won a Golden Globe. And let’s not forget the on-screen impact of his role in 1960’s Spartacus by director Stanley Kubrick and Kirk’s earliest sci-fi, and first Jules Verne, film: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
As Kirk’s career advanced into the ’70s and ’80s, he dipped his toes a bit deeper into the realm of horror and science fiction with Jules Verne’s The Light at the Edge of the World (1971), the TV horror-musical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973), Holocaust 2000 (1977), Brian DePalma’s The Fury (1978), and he closed out his work in those genres with the 1980 time-travel romp, The Final Coundown.
So, to honor Kirk, let’s visit with him once again with this review of Saturn 3 that originally appeared on December 21 as part of our “Star Wars Week” in celebration of the release of The Rise of Skywalker. And, if you missed it, please enjoy our recently-posted review of Holocaust 2000.
Thanks for the film, Mr. Douglas.
What in the hell is one of the icons of the film industry’s “Golden Age,” a three-time Academy Award nominated actor (1949’s Champion, 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and 1956’s Lust for Life), doing in this Star Wars-cum-Alien knockoff—that’s really just a sci-fi retread of Friday the 13th (1980)? More importantly: What is Stanley Donen, the co-director of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, doing here?
Well, you can thank—or blame—British media impresario Sir Lew Grade, the head of ITC Entertainment (you know the ITC logo from Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s U.F.O and Space: 1999), for giving noted British set designer John Barry (coincidentally, of Star Wars fame) his only directing gig. Grade also gave noted British essayist and memoirist, Martin Amis, his first and only screenwriting gig (well, until 2018’s London Fields, based on his own novel). For Kirk’s co-star—specifically chosen to fill out the revealing, exploitive see-through space suits she was to wear in the film—Grade cast TV actress Farrah Fawcett (Holly 13 from 1976’s Logan’s Run), who only had one starring-role since her breakthrough with Charlie’s Angels: 1979’s ballyhooed detective flop, Sunburn.
So, did you hear the one about the long-in-the-tooth screen icon, a first-time director and screenwriter, and a glorified poster-pin up girl walking into a bar?
It was a recipe for a Titanic-like disaster.
Instead of rising to the box office and critical highs of Star Wars and Alien, Saturn 3 sunk like the Titanic, earning three Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Actor nods for Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett.
While John Barry, using his award-winning production skills, conceived a much more lavish vision of the future on the level of Star Wars for his directing debut, Lew Grade was looking for a quick turnaround to cash-in on the Star Wars-inspired sci-fi revival—so the film ended up looking like a slightly more expensive version of the previous, cartoonish ITC productions of U.F.O and Space: 1999.
Then Kirk Douglas and John Barry got into an alpha-male dispute: Douglas won.
Then, Donen, who was on the project as a producer, took the directorial reins. And he disagreed with Grade’s “exploitation elements” and downplayed them. And he was dissatisfied with Harvey Keitel’s performance—Keitel’s characteristic Brooklyn accent, in particular. So Keitel refused to participate in post-production looping and British actor Roy Dotrice (of the “Wish You Were Here” segment from 1972’s Tales from the Crypt) stepped in.
Meanwhile, with Martin Amis’s insightful Adam and Eve allegory set in space—with Douglas and Fawcett’s “Adam and Alex” as space farmers in “Eden” set on a distant Saturn moon base being “tempted” by Keitel’s Captain Benson and his robot, Hector, as the “serpent”—in shambles, Amis ended up using the history of the troubled production as fodder for his next novel.
Money: A Suicide Note, published in 1984, tells the story of John Self (i.e. John Barry) whose film project (i.e. Saturn 3) is wracked with production problems at the hands of a virility-obsessed, aging film star, Lorne Guyland (i.e Kirk Douglas). In 2005 Time magazine included the novel in its “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” The BBC adapted the book into a critically acclaimed, two-part mini-series starring Nick Frost (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) as John Self, in 2010.
During the time of the film’s troubled production, ITC was also producing their big-budgeted, 1980 disaster flick based on Clive Cussler’s 1976 novel, Raise the Titanic, which went “Heaven’s Gate” and ballooned to a $40 million budget, which resulted in production cut-backs on Saturn 3. Both films, along with the production problems and eventual poor box-office showings of The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the way-too-late disco bomb staring The Village People, Can’t Stop the Music (1980), bankrupt the studio.
Fortunately, NBC-TV, who was obsessed with breaking into the Star Wars marketplace—with their Buck Rogers in the 25th Century series, and their The Martian Chronicles and Brave New World mini-series adaptations, bought the broadcast rights to Saturn 3 in a pre-theatrical release sale for $4 million.
When the film was broadcast on NBC in 1984, a number of scenes (15 total) excised from the theatrical print were restored. It’s this TV print that replays on American nostalgia cable networks, such as Comet and Antenna. So caveat emptor when adding Saturn 3 to your home movie library: both the theatrical and TV prints have ended up on VHS, DVD, and laser disc through numerous imprints: CBS/Fox Video, Polygram, Magnetic, Artisan, ITC Home Video, Geneon, and Pioneer Entertainment. The most recent version from Shout Factory was issued on Blu-ray in 2013. Saturn 3 is also available in a DVD two-pack with ITC’s other sci-fi—and more successful—flick, 1978’s Capricorn One.
Oh! And speaking of old Hollywood guys like Stanley Donen working in the space opera realm: John Hollingsworth Morse, a noted film and television director responsible for an eclectic variety of U.S television series from the 1950s through 1980s (Adam-12, The Dukes of Hazzard, and McHale’s Navy), got his start with the Star Wars precursor, Rocky Jones: Space Ranger. You can read up on JHM’s contributions to the Star Wars cycle of films with our article, “Exploring: Before Star Wars,” and you can enjoy his 1972 horror romp with Tom Selleck (yes, from TV’s Blue Bloods!), Daughters of Satan.
Sure Saturn 3 is on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and You Tube for a nominal fee. But do you really want to squander your hard-earned money to see Kirk’s wrinkly ass running around a space station, Harvey in a ponytail, and see Farrah popping ecstasy and frolicking in a transparent space suit while being pursued by a robotic Jason Vorhees? Watch it for free on You Tube.
What’s that? You say you need more ‘80s Alien and Star Wars rips? Then be sure to check out our “Ten Movies that Rip Off Alien,” “A Whole Bunch of Alien Rip Offs All at Once,” and “Ten Star Wars Ripoffs.”
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Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is currently in theatres and was released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.