20 March 2013 | virek213
A Mission To Mars That Wasn't
The notion of conspiracy within the bowels of the U.S. government was very much on people's minds following the triple traumas of the JFK assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate. Even something as noble as manned space flight couldn't escape the grasp of the conspiracy theorists out there, as many of them didn't believe that the Apollo 11 moon landing of July 20, 1969 ever took place, and that it was all done on a Hollywood soundstage. In 1978, one film took this conspiracy all the way to Mars and back. That film was CAPRICORN ONE, a fairly taut combination of science fiction and conspiracy thriller elements that, in some ways, presaged later TV shows like "The X Files", and, perhaps inadvertently, also accelerated the conspiracy theorists' attacks on America's manned space program.
James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson portray the three men who are about to embark on a ten-month space voyage whose ultimate goal is a manned walk on Mars. But just minutes before their ship, Capricorn One, is to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center, they are immediately ordered off; and the spacecraft launches to Mars without them. Bewildered and upset, they are then told by NASA's director (Hal Holbrook) that the life support system built into the spacecraft was faulty and that it is likely that it would have failed before the ship could ever get into Mars' orbit. They are instead ordered to "fake" the landing and the Mars walk on a soundstage in a hangar somewhere in the Mojave Desert, much against their principles though under the threat of their families being killed. But when the spacecraft they are supposedly coming home in loses its heat shield upon re-entry, everyone presumes that the three men have been incinerated. The trouble is, of course, that all three men are actually alive and well, and Holbrook knows that the space program's continued success is incumbent upon them never appearing anywhere in public again.
In steps an enterprising news reporter (Elliott Gould) who, against all odds and some very sardonic colleagues, investigates the Capricorn One incident and uncovers the truth, only to be pursued by military personnel in Blackhawk choppers. In the meantime, Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson break out of the hangar and escape into the Mojave Desert. Only Brolin is able to evade capture or death, however; and it is only through the quick thinking of Gould and an eccentric crop-dusting pilot (Telly Savalas) that he is able to sort everything out for the world.
Writer/director Peter Hyams, whose later sci-fi forays included the HIGH NOON-inspired 1981 opus OUTLAND, and the much-underrated 1984 film "2010" (the sequel to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) directs with a good flair for suspense sequences, especially Brolin's struggle for survival in the desert as he is chased by government agents, including loose homages to both Kubrick's DOCTOR STRANGELOVE and Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST. He also gets good performances from his cast, however, not only from Brolin, Simpson, and Waterston as the beleaguered would-be heroes, but also from Holbrook, who does a typically solid turn as the NASA bureaucrat with a mess on his hands. The Mars landing sequences, though done on a soundstage for obvious reasons, have a crazy kind of realism to them, thanks to the special effects work of Bruce Mattox, Henry Millar, and Robert Spurlock, and the solid cinematography of Butler, who worked on Steven Spielberg's 1975 suspense masterpiece JAWS. Goldsmith, who had won an Oscar for THE OMEN in 1976, and whose sci-fi credits include PLANET OF THE APES, also provides a tense and dramatic score, with almost Stravinsky-like menace.
CAPRICORN ONE is not necessarily the perfect science fiction film; one can spot a number of implausible situations right off. That said, however, it was definitely one of those films that was right for its time, in that it managed to attach something as honorable as manned space travel to a Watergate-type of cover-up scenario. Even if the plot doesn't hold up to 21st century standards (and it may have bee hard to imagine even back in 1978), it still (rightly) made a big deal about how our government too often attempts to dissemble the truth.