Capricorn One (1978)
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Astronauts Charles Brubaker, John Walker, and Peter Willis (James Brolin, O.J. Simpson, and Sam Waterston, respectively) are hailed as heroes when they become the first men to be rocketed to Mars. Actually the space travelers are as phony as their mission controller, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook); to avert a failure that might cost the space program its funding, the Mars-bound vessel has been sent up without a crew, while the helmeted astronauts sit on a movie soundstage, pretending to be in outer space for the benefit of the TV cameras. Unfortunately the Mars ship crashes on arrival, making the astronaut trio thoroughly expendable. Investigative reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who's smelled a rat all along, races against time to prevent NASA from "terminating" the hapless astronauts in order to cover up the conspiracy. … More
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Critic Reviews for Capricorn One
Pretty soon the project gets bogged down in innumerable difficulties, not helped by the awfulness of most of the dialogue.
Controversial for its time, now so-so conspiracy theory plot about faked moon landing.
A sharp, cynical and exciting post-Watergate paranoid thriller that established Peter Hyams as a top-notch action filmmaker.
Cool conspiracy thriller
Audience Reviews for Capricorn One
A decent science fiction that makes you wonder what these industries get up to when things don't go their way, however it's not well executed and ends up running far too long with far too many 'coincidences'.More
The 1970s were the golden age of the conspiracy thriller. Cold War paranoia, the OPEC crisis and the long-term fallout from Watergate created a heightened public interest in the workings of government and big corporations, which filtered through into a series of classic films. But although conspiracy theories will always enjoy a certain amount of popularity, there is no guarantee that the films which entertain such theories will stand the test of time. Some of them, like All The President's Men, still hold up after more than 30 years; others, such as Capricorn One, do not.
Despite the shared presence of Hal Holbrook, Capricorn One is structurally much closer to The Fog than to All The President's Men. Like John Carpenter's film it starts very well, with an intriguing and spooky premise; Holbrook's briefing of the astronauts is like the campfire scene where John Houseman tells the dark tale of the Elizabeth Dane. Then there is a long middle section full of boring soap opera dialogue and people wandering around in the desert, akin to the scenes in Antonio Bay before the fog comes in. Finally, the film picks up with the plane chase, which ends things on a high without quite making us forget our disappointment.
Capricorn One does have an interesting idea at the heart of it - namely that, in the near future, the US government would fake landing on Mars to maintain public interest in the space programme. Holbrook talks about needing to recapture the imagination of the American public, who have become disengaged and cynical. He remarks that when Apollo 17 landed on the Moon, more people complained about re-runs of I Love Lucy being cancelled than actually watching the landing. These discussions precede similar ones included in Apollo 13, although it must be said that Ron Howard's film handles the subject in a way which is more dramatically engaging (in other words, by not having it all come out in big speeches).
The story of Capricorn One is a classic conspiracy theory premise which taps into many big issues in 1970s culture. Although it was made six years after the last Apollo mission, theories that the Moon landings were faked were still hot currency. The Flat Earth Society went so far as to claim that the landings were shot on a Disney soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, with Neil Armstrong's dialogue being written by Arthur C. Clarke. The US was still reeling from both Watergate and the back end of the Vietnam War, two events which made blaming or being suspicious of the government both very easy and very popular. The icing on the cake is the casting of Holbrook; having played Deep Throat in All The President's Men, we instinctively know that he's up to no good.
Not only is the plot a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, but whole sections of Capricorn One's dialogue feels like it was written by such theorists. There are a lot of frankly anal conversations about readouts between the technicians - conversations which labour the points and go round and round in circles, restating the same arguments without really engaging us. Proof of this lack of dramatic engagement is found in our attitude to Robert Waldon, who first notices a problem with the telemetry. Even while we are on his side, agreeing with everything he says, the main thing that interests us is his more-than-passing resemblance to Roman Polanski.
This middle section is where the film slowly but surely starts to droop. Because it takes longer to get to Mars than to the Moon (obviously), there is a lot more time to be filled in before we get towards the money shot of them landing - time that cannot just be filled with routine checks and news broadcasts. But for whatever reason, Peter Hyams' script can't come up with anything interesting or relevant to justify taking so long. The central question is this: considering they have so much time to play with, why isn't Caulfield or anyone else doing more to follow up the strange goings-on, including the sudden disappearance of his friend?
Comparing this film to All The President's Men makes its issues with narrative all the more apparent. All The President's Men had a clear objective and endpoint, but it kept feeding us information so that we could build up a picture of the Watergate scandal with the added tension of the short timescale. It's like watching a guy going to visit his girlfriend, but stopping on every street corner to buy her a present; we know where he's going, but when he gets there the reward will be greater. Capricorn One is like a guy blowing all his money on one big present, but having to walk to her house because he has no change left for the bus. We have to watch him trudge along the same route at a slower pace, almost begging him to get on with it.
The various attempts to grab our attention through character development fail to make any kind of lasting impression. Elliott Gould spends most of his time wandering around looking glum or grumpy, moaning about how hard is it being a journalist to the point at which we just want to slap him. The romantic banter with his female colleague, played by Karen Black, is entertaining in passing but never really goes anywhere. And Gould's conversations with his assignment editor (David Doyle, who looks like Bob Hope) have their moments, but equally feel like we have wandered into an episode of Abbott and Costello.
The film has the same dramatic problem as a great many whodunnits. Like an episode of Columbo, in which we know from the start who the killer is, we already know that the American government is behind what has happened. There is no immediate tension in the events involving the astronauts, because regardless of what happens to them we know who was responsible. Like The Paradine Case, the characters are so clearly drawn that there is precious little dramatic irony to be had, and therefore little reason to stick around.
In terms of its direction, Capricorn One has moments of accomplishment. The Martian scenes themselves are well thought-out; we are introduced to the film set with a long rising shot of the craft, and when Caulfield stumbles upon the warehouse he is first seen as a speck in the background compared to the swathes of dusty red sand on the floor. Hyams adds a nice touch of showing the producers deliberately use slow-motion at certain key points, to simulate the effect of there being less gravity.
This is all well and good, but there are an equal number of scenes in Capricorn One which fail to make the grade. Some of these are a case of the film dating poorly: the model shots of Sam Waterston climbing up the mountain side do feel a little bit Thunderbirds, as do some of the closer shots of the helicopters. But others are utterly silly and have no place being in the film. The silliest comes when Caulfield's car is tampered with: while driving along, his brakes stop working and he starts rapidly accelerating. Hyams then cuts to a camera mounting on the front of his car which spools forward in fast motion, as if we have suddenly wandered into the beginning of Naked Gun.
The performances in Capricorn One are also a mixed bag. Gould is a decent actor but he's not a leading man by nature, having neither the charisma nor the likeability to carry the film in its quieter moments. OJ Simpson (who was later in Naked Gun) is very wooden and stilted, only becoming convincing when he's delirious. And Sam Waterston, who later starred in The Killing Fields, feels underdeveloped. Out of the three astronauts only James Brolin gets the development he needs, who kind of gives away that he will survive.
In its final section, Capricorn One does pick up a little bit, delivering on spectacle where it cannot excel on substance. When Gould uncovers the conspiracy, the plot begins to move up through the gears, culminating in a very good plane and helicopter chase. Telly Savalas provides great comic relief as the crop-dusting pilot, who calls everyone he distrusts a "pervert" and keeps telling Gould to "put your goddamn head down!". The distant shots of the helicopters have a creepy quality, and the film gets away with the cheesy use of slow-motion at the end.
Capricorn One is a watchable but disappointing conspiracy thriller. It has an interesting idea at its heart, but this idea is executed in a jobbing fashion, without the sense of imagination or creativity needed to bring its substance to the fore. In its end its multiple flaws are fairly easy to overlook, insofar as you never feel offended or incensed enough to make it worth holding a grudge. But considering that the conspiracy thriller is meant to provoke debate, perhaps being forgetting is a worse crime to commit.
I believe this was the first film to question the moon landing, and there have been other since this one, but I think this is probably the best of them. I know I really liked it.More
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