Review: Saturn 3 (1980)

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

Label: Intrada Records  

Catalogue Nr.: Intrada Special Collection Vol. 36



Star Wars (1977) and it's surprising success re-animated a whole bunch of concepts for sci-fi films that were already declared dead by studio executives before they even went into production. Some of these concepts were quite promising and ultimately became hits themselves. Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), being only the most popular example for this kind of re-animated concepts, was obviously one very strong influence for Star Wars' production designer John Barry's own sci-fi project Saturn 3. Barry envisioned the story of a couple living in a remote base on the third moon of Saturn when one day a weird technocrat arrives with his robot hector in baggage, who is going on a rampage once let loose. Problems with his lead actor Kirk Douglas and the film's producer Stanley Donen forced Barry out of the project shortly before his death and Donen took over the directing duties. The incredibly camp tagline "there is some 'thing' wrong on Saturn 3" became representative for the entire production, which looked like a badly executed Alien-spoof by the time it hit theatres and caused more laughs than scares.

The score:

Elmer Bernstein just never had a good hand for choosing the right projects when it comes to science-fiction. Saturn 3 at the dawn of the 80's must have been a 'back-to-the-roots' experience for him, bringing back memories of his earliest film scoring days in the 50's with trashy low-budget flicks like Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953) or Robot Monster (1952). He never scored a purely sci-fi film since these early days, so scoring Saturn 3 was certainly a challenging and ultimately thankless task because huge portions of his original music ended up unused. This was to become an unwritten law with several of his other scores for mainstream films with sci-fi elements during the 80's, be it Heavy Metal (1981) or Ghostbusters (1984). Although the rejection of most of the score, including the love theme, probably isn't so surprising if you look at the troubles during the production but the main reason becomes even more obvious by actually listening to Elmer's music. The score is a very bizarre creation and not necessarily in a very good way. It sounds like a mixture of typically epic Bernstein scoring, a bit of disco funk that comes right from CHiPs (I kid you not!), a gentle love theme that later became Tarna's theme in Heavy Metal (1981) after being dropped entirely from Saturn 3 plus a huge amount of often nonsensical suspense music that fails to scare or thrill and sometimes even makes occasional use of Jerry's score for Alien (1979). Needless to say the combination of all these elements form a very bizarre and unbalanced but occasionally entertaining listen.

The lengthy 9 minute opening cue "Space Murder" basically introduces all of these odd elements. It contains the main title which basically plays over a pretty ridiculous special effects opening shoot of a space station crawling slowly through space. Elmer responds to this Kubrik-goof with a bold and somehow menacing low brass fanfare against a rumbling percussive backdrop. As soon as the station's inner life is explored (again, with a clumsy effects shoot) Elmer suddenly switches to Californian Highways with upbeat disco music coming directly out of CHiPs (1979-1981). I really don't know what drove Elmer here but the sudden turn of style is still entertaining, albeit in a confusing and odd way. However, I can see (or hear) why this moment remained unused. After the disco beats finally drop to silence and the big fanfare briefly returns, percussive and menacing suspense music takes over for the introduction of Harvey Keitel's evil scientist character. Quick strikes of brass and percussion note the murder of a crewmen from the station in typical Elmer Bernstein fashion. The suspense music develops into the introduction of the love theme. If you ever wondered what Tarna's theme sounds like without an Ondes Martenot, you need to look no further. The melodies are basically 100% identical while the Saturn 3 version uses a female choir and a slightly different coda.

"The Lab" is mainly atmospheric stuff for harp and woodwinds, passing by with little to say. "Meet Hector" begins a bit more lyrical but still remains mainly in atmospheric, and later suspenseful mode with a quickly playing 4-note motif on synths creating a mechanical pattern to musically represent the robot. The lyrical parts were dropped from the film while the suspense stuff was tracked into various moments. "The Brain" opens with romantic woodwinds that were once again dropped from the film, continues with suspenseful music for xylophone and glockenspiel literally tuning up to the moment when the robot is coming to life. "Blue Dreamers" is another case of 'CHiPs in space' with disco music accompanying a drug trip sequence as source music. "Hector Mimics Benson" has the orchestra playing out a slow, suspenseful ostinato-like structure to support the ridiculous looking machine hector with some menace. The way Elmer uses pizzicato strings in "Peeping Toms" is certainly a homage to Jerry Goldsmith's score for Alien (1979). Eerie strings, male choir and bells continue the suspense with occasional atonal outbursts. Somehow, it occasionally sounds like a lightened-up, Bernstein-ized version of Jerry's "The Droid" from Alien (1979). Especially the second half of the cue has a sneaky and menacing motif for low woodwinds that gives a deja-vu of Jerry's horror classic. "Adam's Target" brings typical, simplistic Bernstein action music with percussion and male chorus pulsing to an eruptive conclusion. More simplistic action/suspense music comes at the beginning of "Benson Is Off" interrupted by some whirling orchestral panic.

"Training Hector" has a pulsing heart-beat as a basis which is soon joined by the electronic 4-note robot motif from early on and occasionally builds up along with anvil strikes and male chorus as the evil robot stalks the couple. "Adam Saves Alex" opens with a rather ridiculous sneaky motif for woodwinds before snares erupt to accompany Adam's heroics. The sneaky motif returns in "Hector Loses It", barely audible though it develops into a lengthy suspense cue which once again has some strong influence from Jerry's Alien (1979) in the way it builds tension. "The Run" is a rather short suspense cue consisting of low strings, flute and xylophone with another snare march during its second half. After more suspense stuff at the beginning of "A Head For Hector", Elmer Bernstein briefly returns to his stronger romantic lyricism for strings. A kind of Main Titles reprise comes at the beginning of "Alex" where the score's opening fanfare is used in a much more menacing way while the ending of the cue has a subtle, lyrical passage for harp and strings. Low piano and other suspenseful orchestral figures, occasionally interrupted by very subtle statements of the love theme, are foreboding Hector's finale. Orchestral figures are whirling around low brass statement of the robot theme and a final brass outburst is heard as Adam destroys the machine. "End Credits" is the usual summary of the score's main ideas with the love theme sandwiched in between statements of the opening fanfare.



Score as heard in the film: 55%

Score as heard on CD: 61%

TOTAL: 58%


The presentation:

Nothing except a secondary market CD with shabby sound has ever been released from Elmer's Saturn 3 score until our heroes at Intrada records saved the long lost masters and released this music as Volume 36 in their Special Collection series. Well, it was not only our heroes at Intrada but also Lukas Kendall from Film Score Monthly and Elmer's son Peter Bernstein who helped making this release possible. Shows once again how small the world of film music really is. The sound quality of this world premiere release is very good and blows the bootleg away. It even contains more music but it's not really perfect (yeah, what really is?). Occasionally, there is tape hiss and slight volume drops which Doug Fake explained as anomalies resulting from the slow tape speed of the archival master from Elmer's private collection. Anyways, you have probably all heard far worse sounding CDs before this one, so sound quality really is not a big problem. What bothers me a little is the sequencing. It's understandable when several short cues are forged together into longer tracks for a better listening experience but juggernaut cues of 6 to 9 minutes are a bit inhuman when you probably just want to pick out a single moment without having to fast-forward the whole thing. At least there are no cross-fades. The liner notes by Jeff Bond and Douglas Fake about the film, the score and the album production are greatly informative and the complete cue breakdown with its extensive descriptions is a big plus. All in all, Intrada's presentation hardly leaves any wishes.

Presentation by the Label: 90%



Elmer Bernstein has hardly composed a more bizarre score in his entire career than for Saturn 3. You can feel it in the music that he never really felt like being at home with science-fiction because the score just seems to stumble along from idea to idea with a handful of occasionally entertaining moments but never really creates enough focus to be fully entertaining as a whole. There is some solid big epic music but not really that much. There is funky disco stuff which mostly feels out of place despite being entertaining on itself. There is a huge amount of cold, mechanical suspense music for the robot which is far from self-sustaining but occasionally interesting. The lyrical and romantic material contrasting the cold suspense stuff is certainly the best aspect of this score but if you have heard Heavy Metal (1981) you have heard it all before. The latter part of the score was dropped entirely from the film, leaving only the few epic and cold suspense parts which renders the film version useless because the score lives from that contrast between human warmth and mechanical coldness. Therefore, the music can work better on CD where this contrast was re-created by Intrada's excellent presentation, bringing the score to life as Elmer intended it but his work is still lacking of focus due to a rather bizarre mix that feels mostly incidental. Folks who always wanted to know what Tarna's Theme from Heavy Metal (1981) sounds like without an Ondes Martenot and all those hardcore Elmer-fans should give this score a listen. Others might sit through and end up rather confused.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg



01. Space Murder (09:18)
02. The Lab (02:05)
03. Meet Hector (04:44)
04. The Brain (02:08)
05. Blue Dreamers (02:42)
06. Hector Mimics Benson (01:25)
07. Peeping Toms (07:15)
08. Adam's Target (02:00)
09. Benson Is Off (02:16)
10. Training Hector (03:13)
11. Adam Rescues Alex (02:39)
12. Hector Loses It (06:52)
13. The Run (01:48)
14. A Head for Hector (03:31)
15. Alex Alone (02:06)
16. The Big Dive (04:37)
17. End Credits (03:22)