-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2004 VideoVista
cast: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, O.J. Simpson, Karen Black, and Telly Savalas
writer and director: Peter Hyams
118 minutes (PG) 1978
Prism DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Steven Hampton
"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). 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
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.
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!