Sunday, September 25, 2005

SATURN 3 (1980) - Stanley Donen &
DARK STAR (1974) - John Carpenter

I’d seen bits and pieces of Saturn 3 over the years, almost exclusively at bars. There was a period of time (let’s say the late '90s) where it seemed to be on the background TV of every bar in the East Village. I’d look up boozily from my sixth or seventh Guinness to find Harvey Keitel on a space ship speaking sternly to a gold robot in a proper British accent while Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas ran around in fitted jumpsuits. I would always think: “Either I’ve had way too much to drink or this is the best-worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

As it turns out, I was right on both counts. Saturn 3 is admittedly campy with a capital “C” but in that fun Paul Verhoeven meets Brian De Palma kinda way. I’m sure the CAMP FACTOR is why it was playing on so many irony-drenched TV sets in so many hipper-than-thou East Village bars. But what the hipsters might not tell you is that it also is a very fun, borderline “good” movie in its own right. I would re-watch this movie over Star Wars any day.
But what led me back to this movie was not its camp factor. It was Martin Amis’ name on the box. The fact that one of our greatest living satirical novelists had written a screenplay, for a sci-fi movie no less, directed by a master of musicals and starring a fully overdubbed Keitel and a gold robot with a human brain was too much to resist. But you know what? It works.
Although the plot isn’t much beyond the usual B-movie sci-fi intrigue (sentient robots on the attack etc.), Amis’ voice comes through in how the characters relate to each other and the robot. Basically, it’s a love triangle between a middle aged man, a hot young woman, a man who wants to be a robot, and a robot who wants to be a man. Actually, I guess it’s more of a quadrangle if you count the robot.
My history with Dark Star is, thankfully, not as long and involved. It’s basically as short as the movie’s run time – a lean 68 minutes. I would have never thought to pick this one up, but this past year I’ve been on a John Carpenter kick. So I figured I had to do my due diligence and pick up his first film, basically a sci-fi short he made at USC which he expanded into a feature. This is his “director’s cut,” actually shorter than the original release.
And that’s what I like about Carpenter. He’s a no-pretense, no-bullshit director who knows how to keep it lean and mean, even when he’s drifting in space. He seems to keenly understand that most of the premises he works with in his movies are pretty simple and don’t warrant run times much longer than 90 minutes.
As for plot, Dark Star is basically Clerks in space, but much, much better. It’s about a group of slacker-type astronauts who treat space exploration kind of as a minimum wage job. They float around the galaxy looking for “unstable planets” to blow up and not much else. It looks cheap and homemade and very D-I-Y like Clerks, except Carpenter has the good graces to keep the bullshit-philosophizing short and let the few good gags run long.
Dark Star has two particularly funny bits. One involves a beach-ball like alien and one of the astronauts caught in a holding dock in a physical comedy sequence that’s pure Buster Keaton. The other involves an astronaut named Doolittle trying to talk a self-aware bomb out of self-detonating the spaceship by applying Cartesian philosophy to the situation. That’s about all I’m going to say because there’s really not much more going on in Dark Star. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

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