Saturday 21 August 2021

Movie Review: Capricorn One (1977)

A conspiracy thriller about a faked Mars landing, Capricorn One is exceptionally silly and wildly entertaining.

NASA is about to launch the first crewed mission to Mars. But minutes before blast-off, astronauts Brubaker (James Brolin), Willis (Sam Waterston) and Walker (O.J. Simpson) are removed from the spacecraft and hustled to a secret base in the desert, where a warehouse has been converted to a television studio with a Mars-like set. The launch proceeds without the crew, using voice recordings from earlier simulations. 

NASA's Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) pressures the three astronauts into participating in fake studio broadcasts, pretending to be on Mars. He explains the original mission had to be scrubbed and converted to a crew-less flight due to faulty life-sustaining equipment, but admitting failure would have meant loss of funding. Brubaker, Willis and Walker reluctantly go along with the ruse, but Brubaker is uneasy about lying to his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) and their young kids.

Meanwhile journalists Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould) and Judy Drinkwater (Karen Black) are covering the mission. Caulfield receives a tip something is wrong, and starts to investigate.

Combining post-Watergate cynicism about government corruption with wild-ass conspiracy theories about faked moon landings, Capricorn One ambitiously aims for the sweet spot where unfettered collusion thrives. Writer and director Peter Hyams conjures a plot straight from a conspiracy theorists' convention floor, and with B-movie charm but a decent cast and budget, delivers a ridiculously engrossing two hours.

The details subversively reveal the lunacy of conspiracy theories, but may still be too subtle for ardent believers in the cause of nonsense. The Capricorn One conspiracy elements do not attempt to pass rudimentary scrutiny, the script requiring a roomful of the smartest scientists on the planet to not notice they are communicating with recorded messages. Over at the secret warehouse studio, the televised fakery resorts to slow-motion to simulate the lack of gravity. And between the warehouse technicians and the launchpad extraction team, Kelloway is relying on a lot of people to play along.

The group of conspirators becomes larger in the second half, when Brubaker, Willis and Walker make a run for it, split up and are stranded in the desert, hunted down by evil-looking but still cute twin helicopters. Capricorn One re-invents itself as a survival-in-the-desert adventure drama, until Elliot Gould's reporter Caulfield finally connects the dots and intervenes. 

Late in the day and in yet another sly twist, Hyams inserts Telly Savalas as acerbic crop duster Albain. His thorny dialogue exchanges with Caulfield are jagged diamonds, and the climactic chase between the two helicopters and the crop-duster biplane is executed with playful panache.

Capricorn One stays on earth, but is still a rollicking ride.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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