‘Capricorn One’ chronicles deadly conspiracy with verve

August 20, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 20, 2012

When I was but a wee lad, there were a number of science fiction films that I was too young to see. Alien, for one; Outland, for another. These were sophisticated movies full of darkness and violence, meant for adults, and not suited for anyone younger than, say, 12 or 13 years old.

But as a science fiction fan, I was well aware of these pictures. And as an avid reader given relatively free rein by my parents and teachers, while I may not always have been able to see these movies, I was able to read their novelizations.

That was the case with Alien, which I in fact did watch on video at home at a relatively young age. The impact of that film’s vicious surprises may have been blunted by my advance knowledge of them, but I still thrilled to the picture and am a fan of it and (to different extents) its three sequels.

And I read novelizations of many other movies, including Outland. Among them was the book version of Capricorn One.

(Alien and Outland were adapted, like more than a dozen other films, by the prolific Alan Dean Foster. Capricorn One, Wikipedia tells me — providing illustrations to back its assertion — had, unusually, two novelizations: One by Ken Follett, which was published in his native Great Britain, and another by Ron Goulart, for the American market. I suspect that I read the latter, as I’m American, and because the cover of the Goulart version seems rather familiar.)

Capricorn One and Outland were both directed by Peter Hyams, who directed 17 feature films released between 1974 and 2001. (Those figures are from IMDB; that averages out, by the way, to slightly less than 18 months for each new picture.) These outings, respectively from 1978 and 1981, sandwiched Ridley Scott’s Alien, the seminal science fiction-horror masterpiece that premiered in 1979.

These three movies have a number of things in common, beyond their being science fiction thrillers. Like George Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars, these pictures largely eschewed sleek futuristic production designs  in favor of gritty environments. Even when these films depicted interstellar travel, as in Star Wars and Alien, or an off-world colony, as in Outland, they featured gadgetry that seemed at most half a step beyond the technology at hand at that moment in history.

As a youngster, I was obsessed with the science and science fiction of space travel. My childhood took place a relatively short time after the heyday of humanity’s space endeavors — NASA’s manned Apollo moon missions, the Skylab flights — and near the start of a relatively active follow-up phase that included the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous, the debut of the space shuttle, the mechanized Voyager and Pioneer interplanetary probes, and a series of Soviet manned satellites.

So real life and the gritty, realistic-seeming production designs of the science fiction movies of this era combined to convince me, at least at some gut level, that outer space adventure was a very real possibility.

As noted above, I did not see many science fiction films from my youth in movie theaters; in a few cases, it was only decades after the first release that I viewed them, and there are a few, such as Saturn 3, that I’ve never seen. But the novelizations (which often included signatures of pictures from their respective movies) and magazines such as Starlog gave me tantalizing glimpses of the adventures that I was too young to view. 

Which brings me to the point of this entry: Just the other day, I watched Capricorn One for the first time.

The plot is relatively straightforward. The film opens just as the first manned mission to Mars is set to launch. Takeoff goes flawlessly — or so nearly everyone on the ground believes. In fact, minutes before ignition, NASA pulled its three astronauts from the capsule. Recordings of the crew’s voices, made in training simulations, are being broadcast to ground control.

Dr. Jim Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) explains to the would-be explorers that the ship’s life-support system is fatally flawed. In order to avoid catastrophic embarrassment, a handful of conspirators have decided to fake the mission.

The crew, led by Lt. Col. Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), is reluctant to go along. Then Kelloway drops a not-so-subtle hint that someone has planted a bomb aboard the plane that is carrying the astronauts’ wives and children back to their homes in Houston. Without their pledge of cooperation, it will be detonated.

The sham mission is successful — for the most part. But when the arrangements to carry the astronauts to meet their capsule at a remote Pacific location following splashdown are abruptly scotched, Brubaker and his men realize that they are dead men walking. Can they escape their captors — and live long enough to expose the fraud?

Meanwhile, in Houston, perhaps the worst-dressed television correspondent in cinema history smells a rat. Moments after Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) was tipped off to a baffling anomaly by a worried ground controller, the man vanished without a trace. Using gut feeling and one or two subtle clues provided by a mournful Kay Brubaker (Brenda Vaccaro), Caulfield is on the war path. But can he find any of the astronauts before the conspiracy can get to them — or to him?

This is a well-executed thriller, one of those 1970s pictures that simply oozes menace once the conspiracy cranks up to full speed. I find the premise simply ludicrous; so does Hyams, according to the featurette on the DVD I watched. But this feature was produced shortly after Watergate was exposed and the Vietnam War ended disastrously, when American confidence may have been at an all-time low; the script expertly exploits the cynicism — both in general and about government in particular — that was prevalent at the time.

Not everything here works. In some ways, Brubaker is a fascinating 1970s American movie archetype. A stony and capable military man, he wants to do things the right way, but he is determined to protect his family, and he’s not afraid to let some of his emotions show. But he is just not a galvanizing protagonist.

The other astronauts are paper thin. Willis (Sam Waterston) is the wise-cracking pilot, while Walker (O.J. Simpson, back when he was a successful football player making a smooth transition into actor) is the token minority. Both actors have memorable scenes — Simpson’s big moment is rather cheesy, but Waterston’s strikes notes both goofy and ominous in a way that only 1970s movies could.

Telly Savalas does good work in a small but pivotal role that unfortunately isn’t as funny as Hyams, the screenwriter, probably imagined it to be. Also unfortunate: the movie’s final shot, which is as clichéd as any ever committed to film.

But the supporting cast is terrific from top to bottom, and it makes the fil memorable. Gould is nicely complemented by Holbrook as the big-dreaming NASA chief who took a wrong turn somewhere and Vacarro as the devoted widow struggling to be strong for herself and her children. Karen Black and David Doyle get only two scenes apiece as journalistic foils for Gould’s character, but those appearances are chock full of terrific banter. Robert Walden also plays his supporting role to a T.

The technology in the movie looks great (for the 1970s). That’s partly because there’s no real need to depict outer space and partly because the film uses the Apollo moon mission hardware. (It works cinematically even though the tiny command capsule appears far too small to house three men for the better part of the year and the lunar landing module seems wholly unsuited to atmospheric operations.) And Hyams films the conspiracy’s faceless killing machines — a pair of small helicopters that fly in eerie tandem — to brilliant effect. There are even some harrowing action scenes, with one involving a runaway car and another an aerial dogfight.

So this movie isn’t for everyone. Aficionados of the 1970s or of conspiracy films should definitely check this out. Major science fiction fans and action-film or journalism-on-film completists may also enjoy this. Capricorn One may have a silly premise, but this silly science fiction/action/conspiracy movie carries out its mission with commendable energy and style.

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