Running time: 123 min.
Release date: June 2, 1978
Conspiracy theorists have long espoused the notion that NASA faked the famous 1969 Moon Landing, claiming any number of mitigating factors precluded the possibility of physically going to Moon, to say nothing of landing on it. While the topic of space conspiracy theories has proven to be fruitful for exploitation by documentary filmmakers and writers, surprisingly few feature films have dealt with the subject. In fact, of the many movies detailing modern space exploration, only one truly satiates the film goer with the kind of over-the-top perfidy that conspiracy theorists thrive on: Capricorn One.
Capricorn One is a 1978 action-thriller directed by Peter Hyams (2010: The Year We Make Contact, Outland) which plays off the idea that powerful forces working behind the scenes can manipulate the reality we experience, and use violent means to protect said-reality. It features an ensemble cast of recognizable stars from the era, but is very much designed to serve not as a vehicle for any one player, but rather as an exploration of the conspiracy theory motif. Because of this, the ensemble works well to support the narrative, rather than overshadowing it. This also works to the movie's benefit near the climax, with quite the unique cameo from the indomitable Telly Savalas, who provides invaluable assistance to the protagonists. The film stars James Brolin, Elliott Gould, Sam Waterston, and Hal Holbrook.
The movie also prominently features the infamous O.J. Simpson, who at the time was parlaying his football career into a burgeoning film career, having scored roles in The Towering Inferno and The Cassandra Crossing before signing on to this film. Younger readers may be shocked to learn that there was a time when Simpson was known for something other than his criminal trials.
In any event, the movie revolves around NASA's first-planned manned mission to Mars, following the completion of Project Apollo. NASA's public image has declined in the years follow the moon landing, due to the expensiveness of space exploration, and the movers and shakers in the organization know that they need a high-profile mission to recapture public interest and secure their funding. To this end, they institute a plan to send a manned mission to Mars—the eponymous 'Capricorn One'—to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, 1970's government contractors are about as reliable as 1970's government itself, and issues with the spacecraft force NASA to fake the mission, with drastic consequences for all involved. This serves as the backdrop for a suspense movie, as the principle players involved in the faked landing have to take desperate measures to stay alive once things go wrong. At the same time, those following the trail of suspicious bread crumbs left in the wake of the mission wind up in a fight of their own.
Our film opens with a voice-over radio broadcast on the day of the mission, building up to the launch. Astronauts Charles Brubaker (Brolin), Peter Willis (Waterston), and John Walker (Simpson) are unexpectedly pulled from their command module shortly before takeoff, and flown secretly to a Government-owned complex out west in the middle of the desert. Viewers watching the launch are left unaware that the Saturn V is empty. Once they've arrived at the government complex, the astronauts meet with Dr. Kelloway (Holbrook), a senior NASA executive who reveals to them that a faulty life-support system would have killed the astronauts on their way to Mars. Because NASA can ill-afford the public relations disaster of a scrubbed mission, the crew will be forced into a cover-up by faking footage of their mission. The safety of their families is used to ensure the astronauts' uneasy complicity.
Things progress as smoothly as possible at first, with carefully-doctored footage fooling the general public into believing the mission is genuine and proceeding on schedule. Unfortunately, an alert-technician working in Mission Control discovers that the crew's video feeds are arriving at Mission Control faster than the spacecraft's telemetry readings, indicating something unusual is happening. Before he can share his misgivings with his friend, reporter Robert Caulfield (Gould), the technician vanishes without a trace, with his very-existence seemingly wiped out. This leads Caulfield to begin investigating what it was that got his friend killed.
In the interim, the Mars landing is portrayed without a hitch, and the astronauts become huge heroes. As the date for the (empty) spacecraft's return to Earth nears, the crew are put onto a plane, in preparation for being deposited in their capsule once it has splashed down, thus completing the ruse. During re-entry however, the spacecraft—apparently having been purchased at Radio Shack—burns up in the atmosphere, leading the public to believe that the crew has been killed. The astronauts are taken back to the base, where the realization that something has gone dreadfully wrong leads them to conclude the inevitable: they must die if the conspiracy is to be maintained. What follows is a desperate gambit from the crew, as they escape from their captivity in the plane, managing to evade capture for a short while before their fuel runs out, forcing an emergency landing in the middle of the desert. With government agents in a pair of helicopters desperately in pursuit, the three astronauts split up in different directions, trying to maximize their chances at getting back to civilization and exposing the conspiracy.
At the same time, Caulfield's investigation takes a unique turn when Brubaker's wife reveals that her husband had been acting unusual in their last conversation during the flight, speaking of a family vacation that had never taken place. This directs Caulfield towards the possibility of something nefarious going on at NASA, which leads to several attempts not only to ruin his career and reputation, but to kill him. The movie then follows these two suspenseful plot lines, tracking the astronauts' panicked attempts to evade capture, while Caulfield digs deeper into NASA's proverbial house of cards, coming closer and closer to his demise each time a new clue is discovered.
As a film detailing a space conspiracy theory, viewers interested in real-life conspiracy talk will find the movie to be right up their alley, but there is plenty for casual movie goers to enjoy as well. The movie does suffer from a few pacing issues, largely due to the focus on the two divergent storylines once the spacecraft is destroyed. However, the pure suspense in the chase and in the investigation provides a unique dichotomy from the film's more-cerebral beginnings. James Brolin and Sam Waterston in particular turn in memorable performances, while Hal Holbrook chews the scenery with gusto as the sociopathic government operative hiding in plain sight. The aforementioned Telly Savalas cameo nearly steals the entire film during the climatic getaway scene. Despite the subject matter, on-screen violence is relatively light most of the way through the film, with violence mostly implied and kept off-screen. One notable exception is a rather infamous scene involving a rattlesnake; the less said about it, the better.
All told, Capricorn One is a unique entry into the canon of space exploration films, providing a tantalizing look into the lengths that the Government will go to in order to fool the public. Mixing equal parts of intellectual drama and suspenseful thriller into a cohesive narrative, the movie works both as a thoughtful story and as a good 1970's popcorn flick, with a host of unique casting choices that will intrigue both older and younger viewers alike. Be forewarned, though: despite its presentation as a 'space' film, the actual plot of the movie is better classified as a mystery-thriller, with the space-based storyline taking a back seat to the government's attempts to protect its cover-up within the first act. But if you're in the market for a smart and pervasively creepy suspense drama, Capricorn One is right up your alley.