[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
“What if the greatest event in recent history never really happened?” ask the ads, above a shot of astronauts exiting a space module onto an alien surface, surrounded by the lights and cameras of a Hollywood TV soundstage. But Capricorn One is at pains early on to establish that John Glenn did orbit the earth, Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon; it’s this trip, to Mars, that’s going to be faked, and all because some nasty politicians threaten to discontinue the space program altogether unless the mission comes off without a hitch. The surprise is that, despite this initial shillyshallying with our expectations and its own intentions, Peter Hyams’s film comes off as a competent, interesting, often nail-biting thriller. The focus of the film is a trio of astronauts forced to compromise themselves by participating in a fake Mars landingâ€”actually staged in an abandoned hangar not far from Houston and televised worldwideâ€”calculated to save the space program (no waffling here: the film actually calls it NASA) by simulating success in a mission that actually could not have worked because of equipment discovered (too late) to be defective. The real twist comes when the unmanned rocket genuinely sent into space loses its heat shield and burns up on re-entry: With the world mourning their deaths, the three astronauts realize that, alive, they are worse than an embarrassment to NASA and the politicos who support it, and so flee their isolated prison in a stolen jet, only to crash-land a short time later in the west Texas desert. They struggle for survival in an environment as forbiddingly alien as any Martian landscape, and the film becomes a space adventure without going into space. There are monsters (a snake, a scorpion, and two helicopters that stalk the fleeing astronauts like birds of prey, their presence as menacingly animate as the snake-headed spacecraft of the Martians in Pal and Haskin’s The War of the Worlds) and even alien-looking villains in the form of two helmeted helicopter pilots who hunt the last astronaut in a tumbledown gas station.