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"Capricorn One" review: The Mars landing that wasn't

Capricorn One


“Capricorn One” (1978)

Waterston co-stars with James Brolin, Elliott Gould, and Hal Holbrook in "Capricorn One"
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for AFI

Written and Directed by Peter Hyams

Starring: James Brolin, Sam Waterston, Hal Holbrook, Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro

Lieut. Col. Peter Willis: Hey, Dr. Kelloway. Funny thing happened on the way to Mars

Many people around the world, including Americans, seem to be fond of conspiracy theories, especially conspiracy theories that involve powerful persons or entities. Every dark event in modern U.S. history, including the Pearl Harbor attack, JFK’s assassination in Dallas, and the September 11 terror strikes have spawned bizarre “explanations” that often defy the historical record. Some theories, such as the claim that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew in advance about Japanese war plans, are politically motivated.

Others, such as the Flat Earthers’ claim that the Moon landings never took place and that what we saw on TV back during the Apollo era were clever Hollywood special effects, are simply zany tales put out by crackpots.

As crazy as some conspiracy theories are, though, they can be entertaining. Sometimes, they even make for a good, if rather hard to believe, film thriller.

It’s doubtful that writer-director Peter Hyams (“2010: The Year We Make Contact”) really didn't believe that NASA faked the various Apollo missions with Stanley Kubrick-like special effects and a "closed set" in the desert, but that notion seems to have inspired him to make “Capricorn One.”

Released in 1978 by Warner Bros. and starring James Brolin, Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston, Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Black, and O.J. Simpson, “Capricorn One” is an interesting if rather dated variation on the fake Moon landing story.

Of course, because the Apollo Program was over and the Space Shuttle was just a space truck for low Earth orbit missions, Hyams had to aim a bit higher and state that NASA was striving to reach for Mars...only to have something go wrong and force the agency to, er, fake a manned Mars landing.

Part science fiction and part political thriller, “Capricorn One” begins with the United States preparing to launch an "Ares" booster to Mars.

Before the countdown ends, the three astronauts – Brubaker (Brolin), Willis (Waterston) and Walker (Simpson) – are pulled out of the spacecraft and told that their mission has to be scrubbed because something has gone terribly wrong.

My Take: To divulge the whole chunk of dialogue (spoken by Hal Holbrook's Dr. James Kelloway, the NASA director) would be a reviewer's worst sin, since it would give away lots of the plot's main ideas. However, suffice it to say that the earnest Kelloway convinces the three astronauts to go along with a scheme to fake a successful Mars landing, complete with "TV broadcasts" and "space-to-Earth" conversations between Brubaker, Willis and Walter and their friends, colleagues, and spouses back at Mission Control.

While this would have made for an intriguing black comedy on its own, the film then becomes a “Three Days of the Condor Meets All the President's Men’ thriller when the government gets paranoid and decides to cover up the sordid affair, with potentially fatal consequences for Brubaker and his fellow astronauts.

The Watergate-like aspects of this film include a cynical-but-heroic reporter, Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). Caulfield’s nose for news puts him in more perilous situations than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward ever encountered when they covered the fall of the Nixon presidency

“Capricorn One” does not pretend to be a serious Alan J. Pakula-style thriller. Its premise is a bit too far-fetched and its tone too tongue-in-cheek. However, the film is fairly good for what it is – a late 1970s action-picture infused with sci-fi and political commentary. And, truth be told, it's not a badly-written one; Hyams is good at giving his actors good and almost believable dialogue.

Though the film is hampered by some unevenness in tone and pacing, Capricorn One is not a terrible time-waster.

DVD Specs and Special Features

  • Format: Multiple Formats, AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, NTSC, Special Edition, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English, Spanish
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Lions Gate
  • DVD Release Date: October 14, 2008
  • Run Time: 123 minutes

Special Features: None

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