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USA 1977
Directed by
Peter Hyams
124 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars

Capricorn One

For anyone who, quite understandably, is wont to argue that Neil Armstrong did not walk on the Moon on June 20, 1969, the big problem is to explain why not a single person out of the hundreds if not thousands needed to pull of such a massive hoax has ever come forward to say “yep, I was involved in the faked landing”.

Capricorn One which was written and directed by Peter Hyams tells the story of a faked landing on Mars some years later. It encounters this same problem, embroiling itself in ever-deeper credibility issues as it tells how this could have happened but having reached a probability dead-end it tries to crunch a resolution with the most inappropriate ending of any film I can recall.

James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson play three astronauts about to undertake the inaugural mission to Mars when they are hiked out of their capsule and spirited away to a decommissioned army base. There they are persuaded by the NASA mission director (Hal Holbrook) to take part in a simulation designed to convince the world that they actually landed on Mars. They get away with this but on the return to Earth the real rocket burns up. So how is NASA going to explain the three astronauts very much alive and back at that army base in the desert?

As this film makes evident, faking an extra-planetary landing on film isn’t a hard thing to do. Rows of computers with white-shirted boffins staring at screens with feeds from the capsule; astronauts poking around outside the landing module, putting up an American flag in a red desert and so on. 

The problems with Capricorn One begin when it shifts from being a story of massive deception to action thriller and the three astronauts, realizing that someone is going to have to make them what they are supposed to be  - dead - bust out of their confinement, steal a jet and set in motion a chase involving two helicopters and a biplane. Meanwhile, to add a bit of tension that never really amounts to anything, a newspaper reporter (Elliot Gould) smells a rat when his buddy, a NASA employee disappears after telling him that something fishy is going on at mission control.

This sort of thing is supposed to be hugely entertaining hence Telly Savalas mugging as the crop-duster, a chopper chase, a runaway car,  and the briefly seen Karen Black as the reporter’s sort of romantic interest. Cutting a film of this type of film some slack is a given  but the script for Capricorn One is so egregiously off-hand with real-world logic that even Hyams can’t work out how to credibly resolve it.

Hence the freeze frame ending. George Roy Hill used it famously in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1968) to suggest the legendary status of his protagonists but here it is completely inappropriate, giving a story that has implied a calculated triple murder and ruthless political Machiavellianism a kind of light-hearted comedic wrap-up. That Hyams compounds it with a slo-mo treatment only makes it exquisitely painful.

‘70s action thrillers tend to be rather tame by today’s standards but the issue here is that Capricorn One just doesn’t make sense. It wouldn't have in its day and it doesn't now.




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