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Film Review: Capricorn One (1977)

Stars n’ stripe flags that inexplicably flutter in zero gravity, shadows that also do not obey the laws of gravity, the conundrum presented by the Van Allen belt through to the complete absence of stars, the anomalies surrounding the Apollo moon landings are plentiful and well-documented. Did man really walk on the moon in 1969 or not? Or was it all an elaborate hoax convened so the United States could claim this landmark before Russia, thereby thwarting its implacable Cold War rival in the race towards the biggest bragging rights of them all?

The Peter Hyams’ written and directed Capricorn One from 1977 taps into a rich vein of scepticism which, despite the best efforts of NASA, has refused to die. Rather than the moon, Hyams’ US administration is set to conquer Mars. Starring amongst others the infamous OJ Simpson (John Walker), Capricorn One hits the ground running as Simpson and his fellow astronauts are spirited off the shuttle just seconds from take-off. For nobody is going to Mars, nor were they ever. Art imitating life?

Having been ‘escorted’ off the shuttle and taken to a secure location the trio of astronauts who along with Simpson comprises James Brolin (Brubaker) and Sam Waterston (Willis) are invited to take part in a giant hoax: to fool the world that a successful mission to the red planet has indeed occurred. Invited is the word – for it is made clear to the trio that the health and well-being of their families depends on their complicity.

According to those who profess to know about these things, the Apollo astronauts could have simply orbited earth for 8 days while scenes of them walking on the moon would have been pre-recorded at a specially-constructed film set – possibly the top-secret Area 51 military base. Similarly, Simpson and co act out their own tableau in a hi-tech studio complete with red filters. Reluctant as they are to take part in this grandiose scheme, the three men comply.

Watching events unfold is journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould) a natural cynic but for the moment also swept up in the patriotic fervour around the Mars mission. However, when a NASA whistle-blower marks his card during a game of pool Caulfield is drawn into a hi-stakes game of life and death. A scene in which Gould discovers his car has been relieved of its brakes and has a jamming throttle is pure Bullitt, a heart-stopping kamikaze ride to oblivion. Yup, this film’s got the lot: conspiracy, menace, car chases, space ships, deserts.

Indeed, one of the most beguiling aspects of this film is its cinematography. At times the viewer is plunged into the vast expanses reminiscent of Planet of the Apes; at other times, the black helicopters tracking the astronauts through the desert bring to mind Figures in a Landscape. Sometimes it might be All the President’s Men. One sequence has a Telly Savalas (aka Kojak) and Gould piloted biplane, Brubaker clinging for dear life to a wing, pursued by the sinister copters through the Nevada desert.

And it is this deadly pursuit, a game of death, which is the film’s mark of genius: news of the astronaut’s tragic deaths having been announced on national TV – shuttle meltdown upon re-entry to earth’s atmosphere – it’s at this precise moment Simpson and his two colleagues realise the full horror of their situation. NASA – the US state – has it all planned out. And so, the chase is on. Cue some extraordinary panoramic desert shots as the trio, still wearing their spacesuits, are hunted down by the same government that would send them to Mars.

Such is the rich tapestry presented, the film’s two-hour running time seems insufficient in order to explore the various strands which emerge. Arguably its fast pace is both a strength and a possible weakness. That’s because there’s just so much to say there’s hardly time to develop the film’s many sub-plots e.g., Caulfield’s relations with boss and potential love interest played by Karen Black; the family heartache which follows the ‘glorious’ deaths of the three American heroes etc.

Nor is there adequate time to explore the cover-up in the depth it surely requires. Even in small doses, by the very nature that it is state-sanctioned, the collusion, intimidation and nefarious activity is sinister in the extreme. Still, one can’t help but feel these themes are merely touched upon here. So rich is this film in suggestion it could easily have extended into a mini-series of six or eight episodes. But I’m nit-picking, the reactions of a critic who, his appetite whetted, wanted more.

Capricorn One is a film for the bucket list. A smart and totally unique motion picture, if I had to award it a certificate, naturally it would be a ‘U’ for Unmissable.