Robin’s Underrated Gems: Capricorn One (1978)

If there’s one thing to hate about Capricorn One, it’s the fact that it helped give birth to all those nutjobs who believe that the moon landing is a hoax. Unfortunately, that seems to be the film’s biggest legacy, which may be the reason why it’s somewhat underappreciated as a thriller. Watergate helped make conspiracy thrillers hugely popular in the 1970s, so it seemed inevitable that someone would try to make a movie with a conspiracy involving space travel. This is the story of NASA staging a fake landing on Mars inside a TV studio, and believe it or not, this idea from writer-director Peter Hyams was quite unique and original back in 1978. Throw in the fact that O.J. Simpson plays one of the astronauts who participates in the hoax and it’s likely that conspiracy theorists have a field day with this movie. Of course, the storyline of Capricorn One is hugely implausible and should pretty much demonstrate that a massive conspiracy like this would never hold together. But just because a movie’s implausible doesn’t mean it’s not tremendously entertaining.

Capricorn One is the name of the space shuttle that’s set to take NASA’s first manned trip to Mars, but only minutes before take-off, the three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson) are forced out of the capsule. The empty shuttle then launches into space while the astronauts are taken to an abandoned military base in the middle of the desert. And once it’s revealed that Hal Holbrook is playing the head of NASA, then you know something shady must be going on. He reveals that the life support system on the shuttle was found to be faulty, but if the mission had been cancelled, funding for NASA would have been cut off. Holbrook then delivers a long monologue about the importance of the space program that’s so well-written and acted with such conviction that you’re almost convinced that this conspiracy is necessary for the future of mankind! The plan: have the astronauts fake their landing on Mars inside a large studio as it’s broadcast live on national television. It all goes well until the astronauts find out that that their capsule’s heat shield has ruptured upon re-entry to Earth, and realize that the only way that NASA’s conspiracy will hold together is if they’re dead. They escape into the desert and find themselves pursued by the scariest mechanical villains since the tanker truck in Duel.

Yes, even though Hal Holbrook is a terrific bad guy, it’s that pair of ominous black helicopters who are the stand-out villains of Capricorn One. Anyway, the only chance the astronauts have of surviving this ordeal is a reporter named Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who senses there’s something wrong once a NASA technician friend of his discovers a discrepancy with the space flight and literally winds up disappearing from existence. It’s with the Caulfield character that Capricorn One starts to have a little fun with itself, and Peter Hyams shows that he’s willing to tell his outlandish story with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Hyams is one of those solid, no-frills directors who’s been making films for nearly fourty years, but doesn’t get a lot of recognition. Even though he’s made his fair share of stinkers, he’s also made quite a few underrated films that I just happen to like. Hyams is also a fairly solid writer and one of the most enjoyable aspects of Capricorn One is its surprisingly sharp, witty dialogue. Despite its larger-than-life plotline, the film does have a great sense of humour about itself, especially during the scenes involving Caulfield and his interactions with other characters. His back-and-forth exchanges with a flirtatious co-worker (Karen Black) and his very skeptical editor (David Doyle, delivering one of the most delightfully sarcastic performances in film history) are written in the style of 1940s screwball comedy, and then there’s this particularly hilarious exchange when Telly Savalas shows up late in the film as a grumpy crop-dusting pilot.

The scenes involving the astronauts trying to survive in the desert are masterfully directed and photographed, and everything builds up to a very exciting aerial climax where the two evil helicopters wind up chasing Savalas’ crop-dusting plane. It’s one those spectacular old-school action sequences that looks particularly impressive because it was made long before the days of CGI and has a genuine element of danger and realism to it. This is all leads to a very cynical, but curiously satisfying, conclusion, where Hyams once again shows that he isn’t taking his movie too seriously. Apparently, there is a Capricorn One remake in development right now, but given the growth in space-related conspiracy theories over the years, I suppose that isn’t too surprising. I suppose it might be interesting to see this story told from a more modern perspective since in 1978, the world was a lot more innocent and the idea of a conspiracy like this was unfathomable. However, I doubt that any remake will be written and directed with the same wit and tongue-in-cheek approach that Peter Hyams brought to the proceedings, which is a shame. This is one of those thrillers that would likely be plagued by dumbed-down dialogue, CGI and A.D.D.-style editing if it were made today. I think the reason that Capricorn One may be underrated and not particularly well-known is because it’s nothing like the traditional studio thrillers that get released these days. However, the film is a very entertaining ride and is highly recommended for all viewers, even those who don’t believe the moon landing was a hoax.

Amusing anecdote: the DVD copy of this movie that I own was released in about 1998 or so, and contains cast and crew biographies as a special feature. Curiously, the biography about O.J. Simpson doesn’t seem to have any information about his life post-1994. Hmmmm, I wonder whatever happened to him…

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