Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Chess goes to the movies: Saturn 3

[I should warn you that this post contains spoilers. However, there's nothing here which hasn't already been published elsewhere on the web and anyway there's nothing I could possibly write which would spoil the film any more than Lew 'Lord' Grade did when he made it.]

"I teach him as much as I choose."

"You haven’t taught him enough. Sacrifice. It’s one thing you can’t teach them, captain. Sacrifice!


Saturn 3 (1980)

Last week Chess went to the movies. We had ten quotes from film scenes in which the game appears and you, our esteemed and valued readers, identified nearly all of them.

The lines above were one of only two films you didn't spot. I can't say I was tremendously surprised. They do come from a pretty obscure film, after all. Actually, as far as I can tell there's just one single notable thing about Saturn 3: it is one of the worst movies ever made

That said, Saturn 3 does contain a more than decent chess scene.  Perhaps we can forgive it some of its more heinous crimes against film-making.

It's impossible to overstate the extent to which Saturn 3 is abysmally piss-poor. There's the absurd opening sequence, the sets that make Blake's 7 look like The Matrix and, by far the worst of all, the beyond-implausible-crossing-over-into-unseemly relationship between Adam, played by Kirk Douglas (64 when the film was released), and Farah Fawcett (early 30s)'s character, Alex.

Adam and Alex live alone on Saturn's third moon. What the film wants to believe it's showing you is Harvey Keitel pitching up as psychopathic spaceman Benson to shatter their domestic bliss.  What the audience actually sees, however, is somebody getting in the way of a leathery old perve fapping around after somebody much too young for him. It doesn't help that Fawcett was evidently told to portray Alex as having the sort of mind and personality normally found in a pre-pubescent child. Precisely what kind of romantic relationship the makers of Saturn 3 thought they were showing is hard to imagine, but I'd wager anybody watching the film today will find it impossible not think of Jimmy Saville.

Astonishingly, Martin Amis - yes, that Martin Amis - wrote the script for the Saturn 3. I'm afraid to say it's just as awful as everything else about the movie.  It's amazing how many gems spewed from the Amis typewriter during one single piece of writing.  For example,

You have a great body. May I use it?


That was an improper thought leakage.

and last but not least, there's my personal favourite,

No taction contact.

You mean "don't touch"?


If that's how people are going to speak in the future then frankly I'm rather glad that the human race will be starving to death, as per the film's premise. I digress, however, because while Amis might have mostly penned a total stinker, the point of today's post is to give credit where it's due. Our man made a very decent fist of the three minutes ten seconds in which Adam, Alex, Benson and Hector the Homicidal Robot play chess.

The chess in Saturn 3 is pretty simple in itself. Adam and Alex are playing when Benson and Hector come along. Adam challenges the bloody iron monster to a game so Alex, who had been winning, steps aside to watch. Presumably this is on the grounds that she is just a girl.

Anyhoo, Hector learning by 'direct input' from Benson's mind, initially does well. "Exchange and simplify" is the instruction that he receives and it seems that Metal Mickey might actually triumph until Adam suddenly sacrifices his queen to win the game.

Nothing exceptional then, but Amis uses the chess to set up Saturn 3's finale. Later Hector is going to go on the rampage and Adam will offer Alex as bait in a trap to bring the robot down. Unfortunately his plan is now going to fail because the idea of giving up a queen to win a bigger prize has been planted in Hector's memory banks. Later still, at the very end of the film, we will recall Adam's words about sacrifice once again as we watch him give up his life to destroy Hector, thereby allowing Alex to escape to Earth.

How's about that then?

So no, it's not exactly Shakespeare.  Even so the chess scene works well and it does so because, unlike most of the rest of the film, the presence of our favourite game has a point.  It has a relevance which magnifies the impact of later plot developments and Saturn 3's closing scenes.

It's curious, though, isn't it?  Chess is generally considered to be too complicated to explain to a lay audience for tournaments to be shown on mainstream television these days and yet the game is the only thing in the film that makes any sense at all.

chess scene images from

1 comment:

Jonathan B said...


Although the chess scene does work well in the context of the script, the makers of Saturn 3 do seem to have filmed it with the board the wrong way around.