Saturday, September 1, 2012

Science Shock

SATURN 3 (1980)

Janet Munro sizzles in THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Daughter of Scottish stage and variety hall comedian Alex Munro, the actress outgrew her Walt Disney beginnings by moving onto spicier roles. An acute alcoholic, Janet died in 1972 - aged 38 - under mysterious circumstances. Reports circulated that she choked to death at a London hotel while drinking tea.

PRODUCED, directed and co-written by Val Guest, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is successful both as a thought-provoking science fiction film and a prescient piece of entertainment. Daily Express reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is assigned by science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) to investigate inexplicable weather conditions occurring around the globe. Stenning learns that the United States and Russia have simultaneously detonated atomic bombs at opposite poles, altering the tilt of the Earth's axis. However, authorities have withheld the fact that the explosions have caused the Earth to be knocked out of its orbit and on a collision coarse with the Sun. As world nations descend into hysteria, only one desperate course of action can save mankind: further nuclear explosions to restore the planet's equilibrium.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is a compelling example of the morbid brand of science fiction typified by British studios. Our insular, island mentality, together with loss of empire and decreasing national identity, ultimately creates strands that are inherently sceptical of progress. Released less than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film still resonates not only because the dystopian scenes of a fog-bound then sweltering London are so haunting (with water rationing and public showers), it also plays out within an authentic environment: dialogue is polished and snappy, the love between Stenning and Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) is sincere, and most of the scenes are set within the actual Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. Adding to this authenticity is that the newspaper's general editor Arthur Christiansen plays the same role on screen as well as being technical advisor.

"No human being could survive a time transition of that kind. Not without fearful consequences!" Science predictably goes astray in THE PROJECTED MAN.

Ian Curteis' THE PROJECTED MAN is a lesser slice of British sci-fi because it follows American-style sensationalism and chauvinism. Professor Steiner (Bryant Haliday) and his research team of Chris Mitchell (Ronald Allen) and Dr Patricia Hill (Mary Peach) are working to invent a teleporting “Projecting Machine.” Against a backdrop of corporate obstinacy and sabotage, Steiner experiments on himself to save his research, but is repaid for his actions by disfigurement and a touch that can kill with 500,000 volts. THE PROJECTED MAN originated from a Hollywood script by Frank Quattrocchi in the late 1950s, before finally surfacing as this joint Protelco/Compton production. Consequently it has the heart of an old-fashioned mad scientist movie, but Haliday makes Steiner an appealing driven character. The supporting cast fare less well, especially nominal hero Allen, who sleepwalks through his role in preparation for his similarity comatose seventeen year stint as David Hunter in CROSSROADS.

Made by ITC and Transcontinental, Stanley Donen's SATURN 3 is an uneasy fusion of Frankenstein and DEMON SEED, and again questions the validity of a world that can become increasingly manipulated by science. A triumph of production design over content, the film begins with psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, dubbed by Roy Dotrice) travelling to an experimental food research station during a twenty-two day eclipse and communications black-out called 'Shadow Lock'. Benson provides "assistance" to two scientists working to alleviate a famine on our overpopulated and polluted Earth; Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his younger romantic partner Alex (Farrah Fawcett) are wary of their visitor, especially when he reveals the form of help he has bought to speed up their research: a colossal, Demi-God class humanoid robot named Hector, who can pattern his personality on the direct input he receives from human beings. Repeatedly denied sexual contact by Alex, the Captain becomes more demanding and agitated, with these tendencies cascading into Hector.
Farrah Fawcett's black leather ensemble appeared in a fantasy sequence deleted from most versions of the much-maligned sci-fi thriller SATURN 3; yet the costume is central to this original Thai poster design.

SATURN 3 can never elevate itself above its randy robot plot - "Trapped between unnatural love and inhuman desire" - even though it re-purposes the story of Adam and Eve. The Captain is the serpent in this technological upgrade, as he attempts to infiltrate Adam and Alex's blissful relationship ("You have a great body, may I use it?"), and continues by telling the pair that when Hector is finished, one of them will be "obsolete". Douglas delivers a gutsy portrayal of a man past his prime, particularly evident when his naked arse is on display in a tussle with the Captain; Keitel looks surprised that he has somehow found himself in a B-grade science fiction opus; and message boards have queried if Fawcett's vacant facade means that she is actually a robot sex slave. Referred to as "space girl," Alex's "plaything" scenes with Adam make for an uncomfortable watch, and even though her character has an admittedly sketchy background, such BLADE RUNNEResque gravitas is unlikely because Fawcett's acting style has always been emotionally detached.

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