Lionsgate // 1978 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // October 14th, 2008
The mission was a sham. The murders were real.
As the summer of 1978 approached, Warner Bros. had a problem: Its planned tentpole movie, Superman: The Movie, had fallen waaaay behind schedule, and a replacement was needed for that weekend. Looking at its other summer releases, the WB brass settled on a low-budget thriller written and directed by second-time director Peter Hyams. They weren't sure about the film, but it was ready, and it had a lot of recognizable names in the cast. As a result, Capricorn One unexpectedly got a full ad campaign and a wide release. It did fairly well and gained something of a cult following among conspiracy buffs, who claimed that the movie proved that the Apollo moon landings could have been faked (thus proving that outside every silver lining is a cloud).
A barebones disc was released in 1998; ten years later, Lionsgate brings us Capricorn One: Special Edition. Does it deliver the goods, or is it just soundstage trickery?
Capricorn One, America's first manned mission to Mars, is minutes from launch when the crew is surreptitiously whisked from the launch pad and flown to an abandoned Army base. Flight Director Jim Kelloway (Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild) explains the situation: months before the launch, they discovered that the life support system didn't work, and the astronauts would have died weeks into the mission. Fearing that the administration would kill the program if they owned up to the mistake, the corporations depending on the space program decided to fake the mission -- a soundstage has been prepared with a mockup of the Martian surface. When the unmanned spacecraft returns, the astronauts -- Charles Brubaker (James Brolin, Westworld), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston, Law & Order), and John Walker (O.J. Simpson, The Naked Gun) -- will be placed back in the capsule before recovery and no one will be the wiser. Amidst threats against their families, the astronauts reluctantly agree.
Several months into the flight, Mission Control technician Elliot Whittier (Robert Walden, All the President's Men) notices that the timing of the telemetry is inconsistent with the position of the spacecraft. When Kelloway dismisses his finding, Whittier explains his concerns to a friend, reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould, M*A*S*H). Whittier mysteriously vanishes, all evidence of his very existence erased, and Caulfield starts to investigate on his own, resulting in several attempts on his life.
Six months later, Capricorn One is on the verge of return. The astronauts are en route to the landing zone when they suddenly return to the base. The astronauts quickly deduce that if they are not heading to the landing site, then something has gone wrong -- specifically, that the heat shield failed during reentry and the spacecraft burned up. The astronauts realize that the world now believes that they are dead; more to the point, to maintain the fiction, they will have to be killed. Acting fast, they escape from their holding area and commandeer a jet; unfortunately, the jet has yet to be refueled, and they run out of gas in the middle of the desert. The astronauts split up and seek the safety of civilization, stalked by a pair of (naturally) black helicopters.
Opinions are split on Capricorn One; some think it's a first-rate thriller, while others view it as a clumsy but well-intentioned movie. This court finds itself in the latter group. While the movie has a plausible, compelling premise, there are just too many plot holes. Why go to all that trouble with the mission technician when all you really have to do is kill him in a fake car crash/mugging? Here's one of the biggest: The astronauts are kept at the base for the six months of the mission; as a result, they have a lot of free time to consider their predicament. You would think that in all that time, at least one of them would realize that the mission has to end with the spacecraft's destruction for the simple reason that they had no Mars rocks or soil. In addition, there are several other sequences that are good scenes by themselves, but make no sense within the context of the movie. For instance: We cut to Willis climbing to the top of a desert plateau, telling himself a joke to help him focus. He finally drags himself to the top only to discover that the two black helicopters are there waiting for him. It's a taut, gripping scene with a dramatic pullback reveal. But why would Willis make such a dangerous climb in the first place, instead of staying in the valley of the desert?
While the plot has major problems, acting salvages the story; Elliot Gould brings real intelligence and curiosity to the table. Hal Holbrook is great as the NASA administrator caught between his loyalty to the space program and his loyalty to his friend Brubaker. The various key supporting performers -- Brenda Vaccaro as Brubaker's wife, Robert Walden as the technician who first realizes that something is amiss -- are outstanding; Vaccaro brings real humanity to her scenes. The astronauts are a mixed bag, not so much due to the acting, but in the writing. They don't have a lot of screen time; as a result, their characters aren't well fleshed out. As a result, they are more types than characters -- James Brolin is the All-American hero, Sam Waterston is the likable clown, and O.J. is just there. In the commentary, Hyams notes that it's somewhat chilling to see Simpson on the screen, knowing what would later transpire); he has few lines, which is a blessing. In short, the astronauts are not so much people as they are the prize -- the proof of the conspiracy, the way for Caulfield to save his job (think Private Ryan in a spacesuit).
Video is pretty good; there's some grain in exteriors, and there is some isolated color flaring, particularly in the opening credits, but there are no apparent blemishes or scratches. While the audio is clear, the 5.1 track is a letdown; the sound tends to gravitate to the center speakers, even in such expansive settings as a soundstage, Mission Control, and a newspaper office. There's a modest set of extras: "Flights of Fancy" is basically about conspiracy theorists and the space program and Capricorn One. It's somewhat unfocused, but there is some fun information in there -- for instance, when one of the lunar landing naysayers got in Buzz Aldrin's face, Aldrin just decked him. The commentary track is surprisingly enlightening; Hyams is frank about what he was trying to do and why he made certain choices -- for instance, he deliberately used Apollo equipment because people would recognize it as real, even though that sort of spacecraft would not really work on a mission to Mars.
At times I can't help but think that I'm being too hard on the movie. While Hyams the screenwriter made a number of major gaffes, the same criticism cannot be leveled at Hyams the director. The movie boasts a number of great sequences, including some spectacular aerial sequences. Hyams spends a fair amount of the commentary talking about how they staged and shot those sequences; he's proud of them, and with good reason. And Jerry Goldsmith's score is riveting, with pounding rhythms and harsh chords that highlight the thrill ride. A music-only track would have been a nice addition here.
There's no doubt that Hyams tried very hard to make a believable conspiracy thriller; he has a passion for the space program itself, having covered it during his days as a reporter, and that passion is translated into a sense of verisimilitude that almost -- but not quite -- works. Still, the story is engaging enough, provided that you think too hard about the plot.
The court finds the defendant a guilty pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Writer/Director Peter Hyams
* "Flights of Fancy" Featurette
* Theatrical Trailers
* Wikipedia: Capricorn One