Saturn 3 (Elmer Bernstein)


Saturn 3 was a troubled film from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. Beset with problems from day one, the film vanished without a trace at the box-office despite a high profile cast including Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett (!), and Harvey Keitel; unlike many sci-fi films of the period, it failed to even garner much of a cult following since. In fact, Elmer Bernstein’s score and behind-the-scenes drama are virtually the only reasons the film is remembered today.

In many ways, Saturn 3 was a blast from the past for Bernstein, whose very earliest works had included science fiction B-flicks like Robot Monster during his blacklisting and exile from Hollywood. Unlike his contemporaries John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, Bernstein was never able to produce a wildly popular sci-fi score with a big, bold title march: his latter-day sci-fi scores were either chained to Star Wars clone framework like Spacehunter or a offbeat eclectic cult experience like Heavy Metal. To Bernstein’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to ape the Star Wars space opera sound with this score–rather, he uses the awful film as a musical testing ground.

“Space Murder,” the nearly 10-minute-long first track, is a good representation of Saturn 3 in a nutshell. The cue opens with brassy, dramatic music that seems ready to explode into a statement of theme…and then promptly metamorphoses into a disco track to accompany the bizarre onscreen visuals of choreographed astronauts. The disco was left out of the final print, and for good reason–it’s jarring and completely out of sync with the rest of the score, just as the scene was out of sync with the rest of the movie. Even though Bernstein employs the novel technique of placing a deep male chant underneath the disco, the music is still extremely odd. The disco beat returns in track 5, “Blue Dreamers,” this time matched with female vocals, and the effect is just as bizarre.

At the end of “Space Murder,” though, is the album’s real strength: a tender, soaring love theme, complete with wordless female vocals. The theme was dialed out of the finished picture completely, and Bernstein went on to use it as “Taarna’s Theme” in his 1981 score for Heavy Metal, where he was able to give it far more power and development. On the Saturn 3 album, the love theme is heard far too infrequently, which only increases its contrast with the remainder of the score to the point that it’s almost as jarring as the disco music.

The rest of the score has Bernstein trying a multitude of techniques: male chants and whispers, brooding suspense music, percussive action cues, electronics, and more. It’s to the composer’s credit that these ideas work as well as they do, but the various experiments and clashing styles also prevent Saturn 3 from gelling into a cohesive score. The best parts of the music are often buried deep in lengthy cues, often only after several style changes. Part of this is due to the album’s structure (many of the cues were sewn together form shorter pieces of music during the mastering process) but even taking that into account, the music often seems fragmented and incoherent.

Saturn 3 is more interesting than enjoyable, a musical experiment that flies in the face of most post-Star Wars science fiction scoring. It’s a fantastic indicator of Bernstein’s range even as it’s not the most listenable album. So, while many of the ideas presented are interesting, and there is some good suspense/action music to be heard, Saturn 3 is probably of most interest to Bernstein completists and collectors–a fitting appraisal, as it was released as part of the limited-edition Intrada Special Collection. Only seek it out if you’ve got an open mind and are willing to embrace one of Elmer Bernstein’s most experimental and bizarre efforts in the sci-fi (or any other) genre.

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