Capricorn One (1979)
Director: Peter Hyams
Starring: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Hal Holbrook
Release date: January 11 (UK). This one replaced L’amour En Fuite on the list because L’amour turned out to be the fifth film featuring the main character and is basically a clip show of the previous four! May contain snake eating and spoilers…
“Funny thing happened on the way to Mars…” When a mission to Mars is abruptly interrupted, the three astronauts are whisked away to a remote hangar and asked to simulate a landing on the Red Planet instead. Naturally, they aren’t too keen, it’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of discovering new frontiers… until their families are threatened, then they’re much more amenable to the idea. But when the now un-manned mission returns, a faulty heat shield destroys the ship meaning the astronauts will have to disappear.
“We are dead.”
“Shit. I was such a terrific guy.”
And when they escape captivity – make that disappear permanently. Meanwhile, a roving reporter is investigating the mysterious disappearance of his NASA friend which he finds is distinctly ratus smellius…
I’ve got to say straight out; I like this movie. I’m saying that now because it may sound as if I don’t. But I do. Well, it’s preposterous, innit. I’m not saying that, in reality, space missions couldn’t be faked, I’m sure they could. People believe what they see on the telly; some folk think Coronation Street is real. For a start; the radio signal. I mean, Hyams isn’t daft, he knows the movie can’t be allowed to dwell on the comms signal beyond Whitter (Robert Walden), the NASA technician puzzled by the glitch early on. The screenplay addresses it thus: rub out Whitter and the errant signal goes away never to darken our doorstep again. We as an audience have to forget that more than one person at Mission Control would be scratching their heads at the radio anomaly not to mention many stations around the world tracking the spacecraft. Plus, a great many more folk at Mission Control would be wondering just who was communicating with the crew (remember, as part of the ruse, we’re told the in-flight chatter is constructed from their training mission recordings); the flight controller would have to be a plant. If not, that’ll be one very bemused flight controller and if yes, he’d have to be very good at lip-sync. It’s just a detail – easily handed its hat as the pace picks up. While you’re watching Capricorn One you get caught up in the action but once those credits have rolled things fly apart.
I always do this with Capricorn One, pick nits, that is. I can’t help meself. Take the Robert Caulfield character (Elliott Gould). He’s the journalist sniffing around Whitter’s obsession with the anomalous signal plus his subsequent vanishing act. Unfortunately, there isn’t much detective work on offer. At one point he gobs off to his editor Walter (David Doyle – ace, he refers to Caulfield sarkily as ‘Scoop’) about all the work he’s been putting in on the story with little in the way of support (hunting down flat records where Whitter lived, etc), but we haven’t seen him doing any of this stuff. Because Caulfield has been clocked buddying around with the missing Whitter, he’s now a target. The tampered brakes sequence is a lot of fun, but when it ditches in the drink we don’t see how he gets out of the ‘COCKADOODIE CAR!’ No matter, my main bone of contention is with the Flat Rock visit. He’s wandering around following a loose lead when somebody takes a pot shot at him. On the soundtrack we hear a vehicle take off at speed. If they want him dead (and they clearly do) why didn’t they kill him? He’s on his own, no one around, unarmed… Walk up to him, pop a cap in his donkey and dump his carcass out in the desert. I’ll shut up now.
The premise is believable, spot on in fact, depicting a government unwilling to spend funds on a space program when there are more pressing financial matters on Earth. NASA needs a healthy Martian boost to keep the astro-lolly rolling in. Unfortunately, having spent billions on a Mars mission – “4 billion dollars to put crazy people into space” – they discover the life support system is banjaxed and the astronauts will be dead 3 weeks into the journey. The mission is in ruins even before lift-off. Almost certainly, NASA’s budget will get the chop after such a high profile and expensive failure. The mission to Mars must therefore be a success; only one way to accomplish that – call Subterfuge-R-Us. So, James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) gives them the big speech, it’s impassioned and he makes a lot of sense, even I’m on board by the time he’s finished. The astronauts however, are not…
“What if we say ‘no’?”
“I dunno. Don’t say ‘no’.”
I recall a few years ago when NASA’s budget got threatened, they released news of extra-solar planetary systems (called exoplanets now, groovy name) and reaffirmed the importance of one day being able to travel to these worlds. I’ve no doubt NASA’s press department would work hard to protect funding. Hard enough to fake a moon landing? Do one! Of course we went to old cheese-face; what’s peculiar is why we stopped. Don’t know whether you’ve noticed but today, SETI can’t stop finding planets, with the super Kepler space telescope. What’s really interesting is part of SETI’s funding has arrived via the USAF who are concerned about ‘space situational awareness’. Eh? The Vatican announced that life probably exists elsewhere in the Universe (isn’t that heresy?) and the Pope’s personal astronomer said he’d be happy to baptise aliens ‘no matter how many tentacles they’ve got’ (which opens up a theological can of alien worms if you ask me). There’s talk of preparing a new breed of ‘deep space’ astronauts, talk of multi-generational spacecraft, *molecules that can go faster than light (which has developed into an embarrassing inter-departmental ‘Did too!’ – ‘Did not’ – ‘Did too!’ etc)… Could there be something big going on we don’t know about? I’m not completely do-fookin-lally am I? Feel like I’m living in a jigsaw puzzle.
Heh. Went on a mad ‘un there, didn’t I… Digression over. The actors are all pretty good but their characters, some of them anyway, aren’t quite all the way there. John Walker (OJ Simpson, back from The Towering Inferno) and Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) are making up the numbers, Brubaker (James Brolin) is the main focus and the emphasis is on his wife and family. Waterston’s character is the comic relief and a dry sort he is too. But that moment when he’s climbing the rock face and telling himself a joke goes on far too long. Funny joke though. Hal Holbrook puts in a shift. His character doesn’t want to be in this position but nevertheless he’s the one issuing the threats – even if he doesn’t take great delight in it. The script is vague as to whom he answers, what forces are at work behind him. It can’t just be NASA! Mind you, doesn’t NASA answer to the military first? Elsewhere, the politicians don’t serve any purpose in the story really. I like the scenes between Gould and Karen Black though (not enough Karen Black in this movie); one exchange in particular always raises a smile…
“You think all I wanna do is jump you,” Caulfield says, insulted.
“Yes,” Judy replies.
“You wouldn’t know sincerity if it ran over you.”
“Not if you were driving it.”
There’s a lot to enjoy here; I love the sequence when the Martianauts escape, even as Kelloway is telling the world of their heroic deaths – neatly edited back and forth between the news conference and the break-out. One thing brilliant in this is Telly Savalas and his crop-dusting biplane. Seriously, how cool is the chase sequence with those two evil choppers in pursuit? Odd though, that Caulfield rents out A&A to look for someone he thinks is “lost”. But he has no idea at this time that Brubaker has escaped or any reason to suspect that he’s walking around in the desert. And it’s a big desert. But never mind… What I like about the jelliwopters is that you don’t need to see who’s flying them; the machines are a presence, very much like the truck in Duel. You know the pilots can radio tactics but Hyams shows the choppers physically communicating, facing each other, a dip of the nose cone to agree with some unheard game plan. The chase itself is genuinely thrilling – spinning, vertiginous and superbly edited. “Perverts!” Nice one, Telly. I can’t get enough of this sequence.
Well shot by Bill Butler (check out a great moment with Caulfield standing in a hangar doorway in silhouette) and nicely scored by the dependable Jerry Goldsmith (I’m sure I’ve heard pieces of this in his Star Trek music), Peter Hyams doesn’t have enough screen time to flesh out all his ideas. Maybe he does have the time but simply doesn’t use it. In the end there are just too many holes in the film for it to stand up to detailed scrutiny.
So don’t scrutinise; enjoy!
* Update: the molecules did NOT go faster than light, CERN have confirmed. It was a faulty wire. 3 times. You’d think these egg-heads could spot a faulty wire by the third pass. I’m just saying…
I’ll give Capricorn One 2.5 ATS Logos out of 5.
ThereWolf, March 2012