The first shot of 1980’s Saturn 3 is of space … and then a giant, white space ship slowly overwhelms the frame from the top of the screen. In a totally unrelated coincidence, Star Wars had been released three years earlier and broke every single box office record on the books.
Even more impressive than this broad-daylight thievery is the opening credits. Pretend you’re sitting at home, nestling in to make fun of the piece of cheese you’ve just rented based on the cover alone, and these names appear:
How would you react? Would you run naked out your front door, flag down a car on the Interstate, grab the driver by the lapels and yell “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?”
This movie is utter cash-in-on-Star Wars crap, and is pretty much exactly what you think it would be, except for the amount of talent attached to it. Particularly Harvey “Arthouse Quality” Keitel. For that reason, in this space I’m going to mostly review Harvey Keitel’s career. But before we get to that, a few things bear mentioning about Saturn 3.
• A Farrah Fawcett only four years out of Charlie’s Angels has to pretend she’s in love with a 64-year-old Kirk Douglas, and grossed out by the advances of Harvey Keitel, who 13 years later was still making women’s ovaries jump in his nude scenes in The Piano. That she almost pulls it off seriously brings into the question the conventional wisdom that she’s the worst actor of these three.
• Saturn 3 is worth watching just for the scenes of Kirk Douglas trying to prove he’s still virile. This movie, in rapid succession, contains scenes of Douglas (1) jogging, (2) skipping rope (!), and (3) ravishing Farrah Fawcett.
• And for the ladies out there who saw The Piano and still have the hots for Keitel: Harvey Keitel has to lose a wrestling match to a 64-year-old, BUCK NAKED Kirk Douglas. Try to get that image out of your mind the next time Harvey wraps you in his big manly arms in your dreams.
• Quick plot synopsis to get it out of the way: The villainous Harvey Keitel comes to a planetary outpost that lovebirds Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett live on, a bizarre alien world where blonde bombshells make themselves exclusively sexually available to pasty, 64-year-old, rope-skipping white men. Harvey tells Farrah, “I like your body. May I use it?” She denies him. He then watches them sleep on one of the planetary station’s closed circuit TV. This station has cameras that are tight close-ups of your face when you lie on your pillow. Harvey then builds a robot that tries to kill all of them.
Now some words about Keitel, Harvey.
Harvey Keitel has coasted by his whole career with the tag of a “great” actor. Mass media has conditioned many Pavlovian responses inside each and every one of us. One of them is to the name “Harvey Keitel.” Every time you see it, your brain automatically says, “Ooh, Harvey Keitel. The seal of quality.”
No actor can keep a hot streak going over a 30- or 40-year career. It just hasn’t been done yet. Think about Keitel’s cinematic doppelganger, Robert De Niro. They both broke through in the same movie, Mean Streets. They’re both automatically linked to Martin Scorsese as Italian-American streetwise Method guys. But Keitel still bears the seal of quality on him – even if its not as strong as it used to be – and the Pavlovian response to seeing De Niro’s name now is to duck so a low-flying, hammy, uptight “straight man” doesn’t nail you in the face. (Look out! Billy Crystal alert! Hit the deck! Here comes Ben Stiller!) Keitel suffered in the first half of his career for being the poor man’s De Niro. Scorsese once considered Keitel his “leading man,” but fatefully changed horses and casting De Niro as the lead in Taxi Driver and Keitel in the very small, if memorable, role of 12-year-old Jodie Foster’s pimp, leading the way for De Niro’s legendary string of performances for Scorsese in this period. But Keitel’s lower profile has almost helped his reputation now. Keitel’s name isn’t bankable like De Niro’s is in Lincoln, Neb., so producers don’t come to him with bags with “$” printed on them every time a script with an older cop/bad guy crosses their desk. He hasn’t had his Adventures of Rocky and Bulwinkle yet (although he would have if Saturn 3 had been a joyless gang-rape of a beloved cartoon with a multimillion dollar marketing budget), so his name still whispers “quality” somewhere in the back of our brain stems.
But is this automatic response really justified?
What has Harvey Keitel ever really done? Without consulting the IMDb, relying only on my own memory, let me write out Harvey Keitel’s filmography, as it exists in my head:
Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1972) – Scorsese’s thesis film at NYU, and a promising dry run for:
Mean Streets (1973)
Taxi Driver (1977)
Saturn 3 (1980)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Bad Lieutenant (1992)
The Piano (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Not a terrible list. But several things from this list jump out at me that, I think, beg for his reconsideration as a “great.”
• There are three to four consensus masterpieces on this list – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and possibly Reservoir Dogs. Take Keitel out of Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction, and they’re still masterpieces. Not exactly the mark of greatness.
• What was he doing during the huge chunks of time between these movies?
• Has anyone ever actually seen The Bad Lieutenant?
• Due to the realities, of the movie business, it’s impossible to expect an actor to not appear in some stinkers. But when they’re in a masterpiece, their presence should come to seem inextricable from the movie’s greatness, even if they have a small role. Take Marlon Brando. Can you even imagine Apocalypse Now without him? The man is only in about four scenes, and yet he hangs over the whole movie, and burns a hole through the Goddamn celluloid when he’s onscreen. Brando isn’t even in the first Godfather film all that much, getting shot in the first third of the movie and then appearing for a few pass-on-the-wisdom scenes with Pacino before he sticks the orange in his mouth and croaks. But again, his presence suffuses both The Godfather AND The Godfather, Part II, two of the greatest films ever made.