Capricorn One (1978) - CoverUps.com

The Conspirators

Robert Caulfield: Elliott Gould
Charles Brubaker: James Brolin
Kay Brubaker: Brenda Vaccaro
Peter Willis: Sam Waterston
John Walker: O.J. Simpson
Dr. James Kelloway: Hal Holbrook
Judy Drinkwater: Karen Black
Albain: Telly Savalas
Elliot Whitter: Robert Walden

The Mastermind

Directed By: Peter Hyams
Written By: Peter Hyams

Running Time: 123 Minutes.
Rated: PG

Memorable:

“...suddenly everybody started talking about how much everything cost. Was it really worth twenty billion to go to another planet? What about cancer? What about the slums? How much does it cost? How much does any dream cost, for Christ's sake? Since when is there an accountant for ideas? You know who was at the launch today? Not the President. The Vice-President, that's who. The Vice-President and his plump wife. The President was busy. He's not busy. He's just a little bit scared. He sat there two months ago and put his feet up on Woodrow Wilson's desk, and he said, "Jim. Make it good. Congress is on my back. They're looking for a reason to cancel the program. We can't afford another screw-up. Make it good. You have my every good wish.”

Dr. James Kelloway, explaining the necessity of the hoax to the astronauts.

CoverUps.com Rating: 2 UFOs

Andrew Peterson
CoverUps.com Staff Writer

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:

  • The fake conversation between the astronauts and their wives, with the astronauts supposedly in the capsule on their return trip but actually in an Arizona sound-stage… The suspense here is really good — will one of them blurt out the truth in heroic defiance? Or let slip a coded message on the sly? Holbrook/Kelloway plays the whole thing with his finger poised on the Mute Button and you're on pins and needles throughout.
  • Elliott Gould as the enterprising reporter Robert Caulfield interviewing Brenda Vaccaro, who plays Brolin's wife. Astronauts’ wives are usually thankless roles in these movies, but this is a really interesting scene, which revolves around the central conceit of Capricorn One: that people can be tricked by video imagery into believing almost anything. This is why Peter Hyams made the movie. The notion that we, the media consuming public, are dependent on the honesty of the media to paint a picture of the world that we can trust — that's a scary thought. Hyams taps very effectively into it.
  • Telly Savalas as the crop-duster pilot. In a film full of fair-to-middling acting, Telly comes barging in with a wonderfully brash, profane cameo. The most interesting and energetic acting — and it comes cheek to cheek with the best action sequence too (see next bullet).
  • The aerial chase through the canyon between the government helicopters and the crop-dusting plane... best part of the film, hands-down. This is a great example of old-school movie stunt work, back in the pre-CGI days, when real people put themselves in real danger to create memorable action.
  • Sam Waterston's climb up the canyon wall. Having Sam motivate (or distract) himself with a stand-up comedy routine as he inches agonizingly up a cliff is one of the more imaginative and quirky things I've seen done in an action thriller. I definitely remember not seeing the punchline coming when I saw the movie in 1978.

Things that didn't work:

  • Robert Walden as a nosy NASA launch support man. Nothing against Walden, I guess my beef's really with Hyams. I give him credit for zeroing in on the issue of telemetry and how it might pose a threat to the success of the conspiracy — how do you disguise the fact that the source of a radio signal is local rather than distant? That's a genuine technical hurdle. Are there ways to do it? I don't know. But I do wish Hyams would have dug a few levels deeper. Sadly, Walden is given just a few lines here and there about the signal being suspicious, and his bosses, including Holbrook, understandably blow him off. In real life, something like this would've gnawed at someone like him. There's a huge store of drama to tap into here. Hey, here's a thought: you center the whole movie on Walden, without showing anything about the fates of the astronauts, and he has this terrible supposition, based on the disturbing and undismissable possibility that the signals his instruments display are anomalous — and thus indicate, maybe, a conspiracy.
  • Elliott Gould's out-of-control car ride. After Gould's snooping reporter gets on the baddies' radar, they tamper with his car and send him on a terrifying ride through the streets, alleys, and sidewalks of downtown Long Beach. Forgive me, but it's too easy to see what Hyams did here — he had a stunt driver drive through a carefully choreographed course at a safe speed with a camera on the front of the car, then played the film back twice as fast for the final print. Nowadays you could green-screen the whole thing, and maybe I'm being unfair in my criticism. But when a roadway construction worker is waving his warning flags at you three times faster than humanly possible and scurrying out of the way like a keystone cop on amphetamines, whatever willingness you have to suspend your critical faculties evaporates. This sort of thing was done well lots of times back in the day. Hollywood's good at it. Just off the top of my head: The French Connection. Bullitt. The Hidden. Against All Odds.
  • The conspirators' handling of the astronauts when the conspiracy is revealed to them. Imagine you're Hal Holbrook (it's easy if you try). As the chief conspirator at the rickety, trembling top of your precious, all-encompassing scam, how much slack would you cut these three well-known, intelligent, resourceful, highly-motivated professionals who are in the physical and mental prime of life? Anyone? That's right — none. They're dangerous. If you've gone ahead and actually told them the truth about your scheme, and chosen to briefly spare their lives so that you can use them one last time, you'd give them no slack at all. You'd be a fool otherwise. You'd watch them like a hawk, you'd keep them on the tightest of leashes. There'd be no privacy, no fraternizing with each other or anyone else. If you're James Brolin, or Sam Waterston, or O.J. Simpson, life after learning of the conspiracy would be a short interval consisting entirely of tension and terror. You certainly wouldn't be left alone in a conference room, or unattended on a sound-stage where your captors have painstakingly mocked up what they hope is a convincing Mars landing site. From the moment you learned the truth about your mission, your sense of danger and impending death would be constant and oppressive.

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.