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Capricorn One (1978)
Director: Pater Hyams

review by Andrew Darlington

People love conspiracy theories. They love the secret, suppressed knowledge that only they are in on. It provides a reassuring sense of control, of smug superiority over those not privy to the 'truth'. 9/11. The real motivations behind the Iraq invasion, Al-Fayed and Diana, the long-running Kennedy assassination, the persistent cover-up about 'X-filed' UFO contacts... and the 'fake' Moon landing. Perhaps Capricorn One is the point at which that one begins? Or perhaps writer-director Peter Hyams was feeding off suspicions already circulating? There's a sequence in Diamonds Are Forever where James Bond stumbles upon a replica lunar surface, was that for simulation purposes... or was it something altogether more conspiratorial? Capricorn One takes those real-life paranoid theories and weaves them into an exquisitely hokum thriller.

It begins precisely at 6:03 am on the 4th January. Although the year is not specified, it's obviously a point soon after the cessation of the Apollo programme, but before the space shuttles, as it captures something of the sense of excitement of the pre-shuttle rocket-launches. The three Mars astronauts ascend the elevator to the rocket nose cone, as they announce, "Now, gentlemen, let's go to Mars!" It's only at "T-minus 50 seconds" that they're hustled out of the ship, with a terse "please follow me, now, this is an emergency." The confused trio are escorted into a helicopter, then a plane, as the launch continues without them. Meanwhile, Congressman Hollis Peaker redirects the straying attention of 'sanctimonious' Vice President Price away from the girl's cute bottom towards "that big white thing over there, you can't miss it." As separation and second-stage ignition is happening the three astronauts are being escorted into a remote Bond-style bunker hidden in an abandoned World War II desert airbase, where the true situation is explained to them.

Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is the NASA mission controller who has to explain to Colonel Charles 'Bru' Brubaker (James Brolin), Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and Commander John Walker (O.J. Simpson) what is actually going on. He plays on their camaraderie, the days when he and 'Bru' were "Captain Terrific and The Mad Doctor," feeding in references to the pride and excitement of the early space race, "I remember when Glenn made his first orbit in Mercury, they put up television sets in Grand Central Station, and tens of thousands of people missed their trains to watch," and Armstrong's first step onto the Moon (they, apparently, were genuine!). Days of hope and limitless ambition...

Then the public began to lose interest in the space programme, TV ratings fell, by the time of Apollo 17 viewers were phoning in to bitch about mission coverage interfering with re-runs of I Love Lucy. There were budget-cuts. Until now, when a 'life-support system' out-sourcing cock-up threatens the safety of the mission... and future-funding is at stake from an implacably hawkish White House intent on cuts. There was, he explains, no other way. NASA was forced into subterfuge. Standing on the fake Martian landscape Bru asks, "what if I say no?" Kelloway shrugs, "I don't know. Don't say no." But there are veiled threats to the safety of their families if they don't play along. By 16th March, a control-room wonk, who's not in on the secret, detects telemetry inconsistencies, but he's ignored, and by 14th May the landing module is seen 'descending' onto Mars. "I take this step, on the journey of peace, for all mankind," as the US President mouths aspirational platitudes about how this mission shows just "how high... our small energetic species... can reach," there's a slow camera pull-back to reveal the battery of lights and the ceiling-grid of the studio soundstage they're really standing in. There's dummy red planet footage and reports of porous rock on the dust-strewn surface, which sets up eerie resonance with real-life footage from the Phoenix mission, the Viking and Mars 'Spirit' and 'Opportunity' rovers.

It's around this point the focus shifts. By now the ignored wonk has confided his suspicions to investigative reporter Robert 'Scoop' Caulfield (played by Elliot Gould) over a snooker-table, and the more he follows-up the story the more he becomes convinced that "something's wrong, and I don't know what it is." In a skilful factoid interweaving he throws in movie and news references to delineate the tenuous boundaries of fact and urban myth, the still-contentious Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Watergate cover-up, he even complains that the identical 'Holiday Inn' network consists of mocked-up fake versions of each other in alternate locations. And when 'Bru' appears to almost breakdown on a 'live' tele-relay home (dated 22nd July - no planetary time-lapse?), and codes a message to his wife, Caulfield suspects his reference to their holiday in "Flat Rock, Arizona" is less than mis-speak, and things get more serious.

The control-room wonk has disappeared, there's a Speed-style attempt on Caulfield's life, and he's arrested on a bogus cocaine charge and fired from his job. Meanwhile, the luckless astronauts joke that although they're "millions of miles from Earth, you can still send out for pizza," but things start getting nastier. On their supposed return to Earth (19th September) the heat shield shows red, it malfunctions and the ship burns up. "We... are dead," Bru announces watching on-screen. "Shit," responds Willis, "I was such a terrific guy." Was this the intended dénouement all along? That no loose ends should remain to provide future embarrassing revelations? Whatever, the three escape into the Mars-like desert beyond where they are hunted down by sinister FBI agents intent on maintaining the fiction.

According to genre film critic John Brosnan the "potentially provocative theme peters out disappointingly," as it degenerates "into a series of chase sequences across the desert" (The Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction). Others could argue that the 'provocative theme' has already been established, and all that remains is to satisfactorily tie off the loose ends. Walker is picked up by helicopters he hallucinates to be birds. Willis is picked up after scaling a cliff-face. Presumably, they are killed. Only Brubaker survives by eating raw rattlesnake, and is rescued by Caulfield in league with an over-the-top Telly Savalas performance as a crop-dusting pilot-for-hire. The movie closes with the astronauts' families and 'widows' attending their memorial service to hear tributes to "these three remarkable men who have given their lives..." when a very-much-alive Brubaker and Caulfield arrive to interrupt the solemnity of the occasion...

People love conspiracy theories. But who is the less deceived, who the more gullible - those who accept that flawed government departments tend to employ spin, dodgy dossiers and misdirection to compensate for their administrative inadequacies, or those who - despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that human inefficiency and a tendency to cock-up renders them incapable of it, that every aspect of world history is controlled by shadowy covert organisations with their own creepy agendas? The generally assumed intimate conflation between space travel and science fiction means that this movie is usually treated as SF. Which it isn't. The space-shot featured is technically feasible, and doesn't actually happen anyway. So it's more of a paranoid thriller, convincingly playing on conspiracy suspicions, while drawing on the reality of a cash-strapped NASA, and near-predicting the circumstances of the shuttle disaster. It accurately charts the decline from optimistic idealism into a more venally cynical era ("there's nothing more to believe in" protests Kelloway). The DVD edition arrived at a time when the Apollo 13 movie is routinely dismissed as 'sci-fi' by viewing audiences when the scenario it portrays is not only science-fact, but a near historical costume drama. And it enters the 'Da Vinci' coded terrain and smug superiority of those privy to 'true' histories. Is it anything more than that? Hopefully not...
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