In the distant future, an overcrowded Earth relies on research conducted by scientists in remote stations across the solar system. Contact is maintained by spaceships shuttling between the stations and large orbiting space stations. Captain James is preparing to depart from one of these stations when he is murdered by Captain Benson (Keitel). Benson, who was marked "Potentially unstable" on a mental exam, steals James's cargo and ship, and departs the station for one of the remote stations, a small experimental hydroponics research station on Saturn's third moon. Arriving there, he finds the station run solely by Adam (Douglas) and his colleague and lover Alex (Fawcett). Adam, the younger Alex and their dog Sally enjoy their isolation, far from an overcrowded and troubled Earth. The couple have been on Saturn 3 for three years, but Alex has spent all her life in space, and knows little of the habits and mores of humans who live on Earth.
Alex and Adam's idyll is broken when Benson reveals his mission is to replace at least one of the moon's scientists with a robot. The robot - named Hector - is one of the first of its kind, a "Demigod Series", relying on "pure brain tissue" extracted from human fetuses and programmed using a direct link to Benson's brain. Adam tells Alex that he is the likely candidate for removal, being that he is close to "abort time" and will have to leave anyway.
With Hector assembled, Benson begins preparing the robot, using the neural link implanted in Benson's spine. So connected to Benson, Hector quickly learns of Benson's failure on the test of psychological stability, and also of his murder of James. With little barrier between the robot's brain and Benson's, Hector is soon imprinted with Benson's homicidal nature and his lust for Alex. The robot rebels. Adam and Benson manage to disable the robot while it is recharging, and remove its brain.
Believing the danger over, Adam accuses Benson of gross incompetence, ordering him to dismantle the robot and return to Earth when an eclipse ends (this eclipse also prevents communication to other stations). Unknown to Benson, Adam or Alex, Hector remains functional enough to take control of the base's older robots, using them to reassemble his body and reconnect his brain. Unaware of Hector's resurgence, Benson attempts to leave the station, and drag Alex with him. Resuscitated, Hector murders Benson before he can leave with Alex. Hector blows up Benson's spacecraft before Adam and Alex can escape in it, trapping them all on Saturn 3, and assumes control of the station's computer.
Trapped in the control room, Alex and Adam are surprised to see Benson's face on their monitor. The two are directed by a voice they recognize as Benson's to leave the control room, both surprised that Benson is even alive. To their shock, Alex and Adam are confronted by Hector, now wearing Benson's decapitated head.
A short time later, Alex and Adam wake in their own rooms. To her horror, Alex finds that Hector has installed a brain link at the top of Adam's spine, much like the one that Benson had, and one which will give Hector direct access to Adam's brain. Before Hector can make the connection, Adam destroys it, sacrificing himself by detonating explosives hidden on his person.
In the final scene, Alex, now alone, is shown aboard an Earth-bound spacecraft.
John Barry conceived the project as a much more lavish vision of the future. The film's producers, Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment, intended the production to cash in on the sudden vogue for science fiction and horror following the success of Alien. Farrah Fawcett was also hoped to be a major draw for a teenage male audience and much of the film's promotion was based around the revealing space suits she was to wear in the film. Donen played down the exploitation elements, resulting in a film that the producers struggled to market.
Barry was set to make his directorial debut with the film, but he was replaced after shooting started, according to some reports, due to a dispute with Kirk Douglas. Stanley Donen, who was already attached to the project as producer, replaced him. Reportedly, Donen was dissatisfied with Harvey Keitel's characteristic Brooklyn accent. Because Keitel refused to take part in post-production looping, Keitel's voice is dubbed over by British actor Roy Dotrice who, for this performance, adopted a mid-Atlantic accent.
Two scenes that had been filmed for the production were edited out, due to Lew Grade objecting to their subject matter. These were a dream sequence that involved both Adam and Alex killing Benson and a scene where Hector ripped apart Benson's dead body on a table in one of the colony's laboratories. Regardless of these cuts, the film received an MPAA rating of R, for scenes of violence and brief nudity. In the UK, the film was given a more relaxed A certificate by the BBFC for its theatrical release, though subsequent home video releases were given a 15 certificate.
ITC was also producing Raise the Titanic! at the same time. As the other film went over-schedule and over-budget and ultimately failed at the box office, the production of Saturn 3 was cut back.
In screenwriter Martin Amis's novel Money the main character, John Self, is based in part on John Barry (Self's father is named Barry Self as well). The aging film star "Lorne Guyland", obsessed with his own virility, is based on Douglas. Similarly, the project that John Self attempts to complete is as wracked with disaster as was the production of Saturn 3.
When the film was broadcast on NBC in mid-1984, a number of scenes that had been edited out the original print had been restored : Adam offering to take Alex to Earth; Alex voicing her concern to Adam about taking Hector outside of the complex; Adam taking Hector outside in the moon buggy; Benson asking how Alex's eye was after her accident; Adam leaving Hector near the shuttle probe; Hector re-entering the colony and sabotaging the outer airlock mechanism to prevent Adam from coming back inside; an extended scene of Benson walking down a corridor; Adam trying to re-enter Saturn 3 and blowing the outer airlock door off with an explosive adhesive; an extended scene of Adam in the decontamination chamber; Alex voicing her worry that Hector might have killed Adam; Alex being dragged away by Benson and yelling at him; Adam embracing Alex and watching Hector drag away Benson's dead body; Adam holding a towel to his head after Benson had hit him with a pipe and claiming that "Hector is no humpty-dumpty"; both Adam and Alex wondering how Hector managed to reassemble itself; and finally both Adam and Alex sharing a laugh over a humorous incident while hiding in the communications room. Additional music cues were also added to scenes involving the opening credits and Benson's death; in fact, much of Elmer Bernstein's score was removed or reedited.
Lew Grade pre-sold the film to NBC for $4 million, which helped minimize its losses.
The film holds a 10% approval rating ("Rotten") at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
Saturn 3 was released on VHS by CBS/Fox Video, PolyGram, Magnetic Video and Artisan Entertainment.
The film was released on laserdisc by CBS/Fox Video and ITC Home Video.
It was released on DVD by Artisan Entertainment, Geneon Entertainment and Pioneer Entertainment.
On December 3, 2013, it was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Scream Factory.Nominated:
1981 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture
1981 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor (Kirk Douglas)
1981 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress (Farrah Fawcett)