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Peter Hyams' Capricorn One distorts an interesting thriller premise, embracing gimmicks over theme and character. Noted for sequel-izing 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hyams has created film remakes or adaptations as varied as High Noon (Outland) and The Narrow Margin (Narrow Margin) and is said to be completing a remake of Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Of all his pictures, the most affecting so far is his relatively forgotten 1974 film Our Time, a story of a frightened girl who seeks an illegal abortion.
When NASA discovers that their Capricorn 1 spaceship has a faulty life support system, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) takes drastic action to save the Space Program from termination by an unfriendly White House. Astronauts Brubaker, Willis and Walker (James Brolin, Sam Waterston & O.J. Simpson) are yanked from the capsule just before launch and spirited away to an isolated, abandoned airbase. Kelloway shows the confused spacemen a prepared TV setting representing the surface of Mars, where they'll act out the televised parts of the mission for home viewing. The astronauts balk until Kelloway infers that a refusal to cooperate will mean that they'll have to be killed!
The astronauts grudgingly cooperate, on a 'patriotic' basis. Video special effects are used to simulate the lower gravity in the Mars tele-transmissions. But when the empty Capricorn 1 capsule burns up on re-entry into the atmosphere, the spacemen realize that they have become targets for murder -- Kelloway can't let them reveal that the mission was faked.
Capricorn One became a surprise hit when Warner Bros. needed a picture to fill the gap left by Superman: The Movie, which couldn't be finished in time for its summer 1978 play dates. Less a space movie than a conspiracy thriller, Hyams' film sets up an outrageous premise and then abandons it in favor of audience-friendly chase scenes. The picture comes to life only near the end, with an exciting aerial combat between a crop dusting biplane and two helicopters.
After the political assassinations of the 1960s and the revelations of illegal secret activities by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., the notion of sinister conspiracies suddenly seemed less fantastic. Alan J. Pakula's notable The Parallax View invents a secret corporation that recruited assassin-patsies to take the blame for political assassinations. Capricorn One cynically extends the paranoia to the Space Program's Mars project, but has come up with a fantasy that doesn't satisfy the minimum requirements of paranoid politics or technical feasibility. According to Hyams' script, NASA reacts like Stanley Kubrick's HAL computer, choosing to deceive the world and commit wholesale murder rather than "die" for lack of funding.
There's nothing wrong with basing a thriller on an unlikely premise, but Capricorn One shortchanges its characters to focus on its own faulty plot mechanics. Investigative reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) detects the conspiracy by witnessing the mysterious disappearance of a NASA technician (Robert Walden) and noticing an inconsistency in the behavior of an astronaut's wife (Brenda Vaccaro). Caulfield gets absolutely nowhere until it's time to unmask the conspirators. He trades poorly written sexual banter with a briefly glimpsed fellow reporter (Karen Black). His relationship with editor (David Doyle) is so perfunctory that they swap self-conscious movie clichés instead of dialogue: "Here's the exasperated but loyal editor bailing the reporter out of jail."
The movie ignores its woefully underwritten astronauts during the months-long Mars mission. We know the film isn't working when Dr. Kelloway feeds his astronauts five pages of nonsense explaining why it's necessary to deceive the entire world and make them all into reprehensible liars. Faced with this crisis of conscience and character, the astronauts passively accept the unethical proposal. O.J. Simpson stares blankly and James Brolin looks as though his feelings have been hurt. Sam Waterston offers limp quips: "Oh, the marvels of American science. Here we are millions of miles from earth, and we can still send out for pizza." The film's portrait of America's finest, most courageous heroes isn't very flattering.
Kelloway performs his bogus Mars landing on live TV instead of with pre-taped video segments, a very risky proposition. What if the power blew in the hangar-TV set, or if one of those movie lights burned out? Skilled video effects experts shift the TV image to slow motion for certain astronaut actions, in a way highly unlikely to deceive trained eyes. In this respect the movie is fairly insulting. The most immediate parallel I can think of is the ridiculously unconvincing faked war footage seen in the similarly themed Wag the Dog (1997).
For a conspiracy to succeed, the number of people "in the know" needs to be very small. Only a handful of conspirators are shown in Capricorn One but the events imply that hundreds must be involved. A space launch employs an army of technicians, all triple-checking each other's work. Many NASA employees must have seen the three astronauts leave the spaceship. During the flight, many in the control room would be aware that the rocket is being remote-guided from Earth, and that no astronaut health status telemetry is coming in. The redundant, intensely monitored communications systems can't be jiggered to falsify transmissions from space without scores of experts knowing.
Capricorn One's widening conspiracy doesn't stop there. Dr. Kelloway must also have the cooperation of the military to run his secret TV studio in the desert, and further cooperation to undertake a massive search-and-murder campaign across the Southwestern desert. I suppose we can assume that the gunmen that arrest Caulfield are only impersonators pretending to be government agents, so the F.B.I. isn't necessarily part of the conspiracy. But the gunmen, astronaut-tenders and pilots must be somebody. Does Kelloway have entire "black ops" murder squads at his disposal? If he does, forget the faked Mars landing, because the entire country has already been taken over by thousands of nefarious Blue Meanies, the shadowy "they" that secretly run the government.
Earlier conspiracy thrillers generated political paranoia to express larger concerns. The Parallax View made impossible assassination schemes seem plausible. Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor ended with the bald message that America will accept any crime or foreign war, as long as the government delivers cheap gasoline. Capricorn One indicts half the U.S. Government, and then sidesteps the consequences of its premise by entertaining us with an exciting thriller chase. The final scene freeze-frames before anybody has a chance to point fingers, scream bloody murder or take poison. We're left with a half-baked movie.
Capricorn One also seems designed to avoid as many 'dull' dramatic scenes as possible. The astronauts see their wives only by television. Guest stars Karen Black and Telly Savalas were probably hired for a day apiece, along with actors David Doyle, David Huddleston and James Karen. When Robert Walden's nosy technician suddenly disappears, we feel cheated. Like most of the cast, he hasn't been given a chance to make an impact.
Lionsgate's DVD of Capricorn One is a solid enhanced transfer that replicates cinematographer Bill Butler's sharp images and showcases Jerry Goldsmith's punchy score. Lionsgate expands its horizons by including a featurette and an entertaining commentary. Director Peter Hyams talks about sifting through official lies while serving as a reporter in Vietnam. He's realistic about his film and proud of its technical achievement. One of Hyams' inspirations came from a statement made by an astronaut. During a launch, the astronaut mused over the fact that he was sitting on an enormous tower of explosives, riding a spaceship in which each part was designed and assembled by the lowest bidder.
Hyams doesn't talk much about the budget shortcuts, such as the fact that most of the desert scenes, including the aerial stunts, seem to be filmed adjacent to the familiar Red Rock Canyon area north of Palmdale, California. Unfortunately, his "helicopters as characters" aerial choreography has dated badly. The bug-like copters turn as if to speak to one another, and behave like hound dogs on the scent. They also fly in tight formation at all times, a risk that's both unnecessary and counterproductive for a desert search. Hyams does point out the film's excellent miniatures, and explains the scheduling problem with Superman that gave Capricorn One a top summer distribution slot.
The featurette places writer-director Hyams opposite an historian and a UFO phenomena buff for an uneven discussion. They cover Hyams' other inspiration, the persistent claims by conspiracy theorists that the Apollo moon landings never happened, and were faked just as seen in Capricorn One.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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