Directed By: Peter Hyams
— Dr. James Kelloway, explaining the necessity of the hoax to the astronauts.
CoverUps.com Rating: 2 UFOs
When the assignment to review Capricorn One first came my way, I was apprehensive. I have vague memories of Capricorn One from the late '70s, when I saw it, once, in the theater. That fact is key. Back then if I liked a movie, I saw it over and over and over again. If I look back on the blockbusters from that now-distant decade — The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars, and the like — I saw them all an absurd number of times. Not Capricorn One. Once was enough. Why?
For the obvious reason, of course — it was a disappointing movie. Not technically, in terms of look, or acting, or sets and such. I'm talking about the nuts and bolts of the story. I loved the idea of it — a faked Mars landing. Oh goody! A giant, audacious, high-tech hoax! But the devil's in the details, as always, and Capricorn's writer-director, Peter Hyams, really kinda blew it in the scenario department.
Right before hitting "Play" on the blu-ray player, I entertained a modest sense of hope that my memory of disappointment was somehow ill-founded. Maybe, I thought, the movie was better than I remembered. Maybe it had aged well. Maybe I was being needlessly pessimistic, and I would find myself pleasantly surprised as the story unfolded.
But within minutes of the truly striking opening images of a rocket launch pad stunningly backlit by a morning sunrise, the dismal truth about Capricorn One came flooding back. It just isn't that good a movie. The best thing about it is the premise, but once you dive into the nitty-gritty of the plot, dammit, it simply falls to pieces. Not that there aren't bright spots and pleasurable moments and even some well-done scenes — there are. But this is basically Grade B film making, at best — and a massive missed opportunity for a genre classic.
Here's the thing about conspiracies: the bigger they are, the less plausible they get. Even back in a world without the Internet or social media, the laws that govern people in groups plotting evil deeds are pretty unforgiving: the temptation to spill the beans is constant and corrosive to the ongoing success of the enterprise. As the number of people in on a scam rises, so does the temptation to reveal it. If what I'll call the "juiciness quotient" of the scam goes up, so does the temptation to reveal it. Every conspiracy movie — and every real-life conspiracy — faces this obstacle.
All of which makes a faked Mars landing one hell of a challenge for the writer. When you think about the expense and national prestige of space missions in general, the public scrutiny, and the number of people who are necessarily "in the know" on the operational details, to say nothing of the basic juiciness quotient of faking something of this magnitude — well, you're setting yourself one mighty high story-telling bar.
The conspiracy — and the plot problems — kick in early, when the astronauts are pulled out of the capsule minutes before launch. Earth to Peter Hyams: wouldn't everyone see that? There are some things so obvious you'd think the writer would see them coming. We're asked to believe you can extract three astronauts from a Saturn 5 rocket in the middle of a public launch, with news cameras everywhere and spectators watching with binoculars in the stands — and nobody notices? Really?
Hal Holbrook as the villainous NASA administrator Dr. James Kelloway is one of the main attractions and pleasures of Capricorn One. Hyams hit it on the nose when he made Kelloway the focus of the conspiracy, and Holbrook was a great choice to play him. If such a scam ever got off the ground, it would have to be the brainchild of someone like this — someone ambitious, powerful, and technically accomplished — and fairly high up the organizational ladder.
In one of the film's best scenes, he lays it out for the astronauts after they've been spirited away from the launch that the mission was doomed to fail, that a corrupt subcontractor cut corners on the life-support system and NASA didn't find out 'til it was too late that it would've killed them all halfway to the red planet. And yet... I still think in a real conspiracy this fact would've been kept from the astronauts; there would be no reason ever to tell them. It could be revealed to the audience later in the story. Nevertheless, the technical gremlin Hyams delivers to serve as the grain of sand at the heart of the conspiracy pearl is a good one.
The astronauts are played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson. As the kind of alpha-male type who would lead a space mission, Brolin is just so-so. He looks the part, but his acting is wooden and uninspired. As the wise-cracking second-in-command Peter Willis, Sam Waterston has all the best lines in this movie, many of them laugh-out-loud funny. As for O.J., it's impossible to see him in anything without thinking about you-know-what, but even taking that into account I still far prefer him in any of the Naked Gun flicks over what he does here. Heck, I think he was better in The Towering Inferno. The best I can say for his acting in Capricorn One is that I'm glad he doesn't have more dialog — and he doesn't have much.
Things that worked:
Things that didn't work:
So anyway, to wrap everything up: Capricorn One is a great sci-fi premise spoiled by bad execution. Since Hollywood is creatively exhausted and slavishly remaking or rebooting everything in sight, may I suggest they have another go at this one? On second thought, maybe not. They'd probably give the project to Michael Bay, and he'd give us a bombastic monstrosity that leaves us longing for the artistic excellence of the original.