“Funny thing happened on the way to Mars.” It’s interesting to compare this basic what-if science fictional adventure with docudramas like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1984). Although they were made after this entirely fictional production, those ‘retro’ features seem to belong to a different and far less cynical era. Capricorn One is about what happens when the first, and therefore extremely hazardous, manned mission to Mars has to be faked. Knowing that the flight is doomed to failure because of technical flaws in its life support system, an anonymous group of politically aware administrators and greedy industrial backers concoct a scheme to fool the American people (and the rest of the world) into believing that men have walked on Mars. By ensuring the apparent success of Capricorn One, the conspirators hope to maintain public support – and vital US government funding – for the space programme. However, this isn’t an impenetrably layered mystery like Alan J. Pakula’s mesmerising The Parallax View (1974).
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It’s a lively comedy thriller aimed at the family audience.
Strong casting for the main characters brings a welcome human dimension to the ruthlessly efficient James Bond style plot. As beleaguered astronauts Colonel Brubaker, Lieutenant Willis and Commander Walker, we have James Brolin – no stranger to SF cinema after Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Westworld (1973), Sam Waterston (who gets all the best comic lines), and O.J. Simpson (long before his over-publicised trial bought him unhappy notoriety). Coerced by NASA chief Dr Kelloway (Hal Holbrook, brilliant as ‘Deep Throat’ in Pakula’s All The President’s Men, 1976) into a literally stage-managed performance of the Mars landing (the movie set doubles as a location in the story!), our spacer heroes play along with the diabolical scam until they eventually realise their boss will not let them live to expose the hoax later. In a long yet persuasive speech, the manipulative Kelloway explains how public disinterest and congressional cutbacks have almost crippled the space programme. He blames successive American leaderships for their lack of vision and pioneering ambition, claiming it’s others’ shortsightedness that’s led to the unpleasant necessity of this staggering deception by the men behind NASA.
Luckily for Brubaker’s crew, obsessive TV journalist Caulfield (Elliott Gould) picks up on the clue that a troubled Brubaker gives his wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) during the astronauts’ bogus radio call home, and enlists mercenary crop-dusting bi-plane pilot Albain (a caustic and voluble Telly Savalas), in an ill-equipped but timely search and rescue mission. There are memorable contributions from the outstanding supporting cast, including Robert Walden (perhaps still best known for TV’s Lou Grant) as fatally inquisitive NASA technician Elliot Whittier, David Doyle (Bosley from TV’s Charlie’s Angels) as Caulfield’s cinephile editor, Karen Black (whose career hit the skids after this) as TV reporter Judy Drinkwater, and David Huddleston as a sycophantic Congressman schmoozing the smarmy Vice President (James Karen). Also watch for James B. Sikking, who later appeared in Hyams’ Outland (1981).
The film’s witty blending of sinister conspiracy, meticulous detective work, and rugged chase sequences makes for terrific entertainment, though repeat viewings add nothing to the movie’s worthwhile yet hardly intellectual reputation.
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Rotary Action notes that Capricorn One is possibly the first ever cinema appearance of the unmarked ‘black helicopters’, later synonymous with government conspiracy theories.
Like earlier DVD releases of the movie, this budget priced disc is lamentably short on quality. It has only digital mono sound (when the film was made in four-track stereo) and offers an unsatisfactory pan-and-scan ratio of 4:3 when the film was shot in anamorphic 2.35:1 (compare this with the Region 1 NTSC disc, which at least has a letterbox version and a Dolby 5.1 mix). The only extras are a batch of trailers, and English subtitles. Capricorn One is a nearly great film that’s long overdue for a digitally re-mastered special edition!