[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.
There are other conceits as well: the shrouded video console that tells us with chilling economy not only that Elliott Witterâ€”the NASA man who knows too muchâ€”is gone, but that he is dead; oblique and direct references to Call Northside 777, Dr. Strangelove and a fistful of Hitchcock films; some clever visual puns (a news reporter’s sabotaged car crashes into the drink, followed by a cut to the day of the rocket’s scheduled splashdown; one astronaut, to keep himself sane, tells himself an elaborate joke in which being “on the roof” becomes a euphemism for being near death, and finishes the joke as he reaches the top of a high mesa to find the helicopters of his executioners already waiting); and a lot of interesting juxtapositions of speed with slowness (crawling through the desert vs. flying through the air, a harrowing air chase vs. a funeral procession, two men running in a cemetery). In fact, there are so many good and half-good ideas in it that Capricorn One would quickly go flying off in all directions if it weren’t held together by several strong elements: Hyams’s taut script and direction, Jerry Goldsmith’s score (true suspense music in the Herrmann tradition), and three or four commanding performances, most notably David Huddleston’s as a coolly calculating Congressman and Hal Holbrook’s as Calloway, the NASA scientist-administrator who masterminds the fakery. Holbrook has a particularly good momentâ€”and I’m not finally sure whether it’s his or Hyams’sâ€”when, issuing a statement to the press after the burn-up of the rocket, he makes a Freudian slip: “We maintain contract, er, contact with the spacecraft….” It’s a telling detail in his baroque world of deals and arrangements, the more effective for coming at just the point when we’ve begun to wonder if that heat-shield separation and burn-up was an accident after all, or part of the plan the astronauts were not let in on.
For what seems to be Calloway’s individual crusade quickly becomes more: “It’s not just me,” he says; “there are Forces who have a lot to lose if this program is cancelled.” There are those who have a lot to gain, too: two camps of politicians each using the space program toward their own economic ends. Hyams conspires with Bill Butler’s arresting (if not always inventive) cinematography to keep us aware of the narrowing breadth of that middle ground between two opposing villainies. Shallow focus is a key device: most of the time most of what we are looking at is out of the focal plane. A typical composition has the astronauts debating the morality of their actions on the “set” of their fake landing, while the words UNITED STATES and the American flag on the module are blurred into ambiguity. Butler takes advantage of the sprawling wide screen to employ a number of symmetrical compositions that underscore the odd duality of the film’s moral limbo; but more often the edges of the frame are less formally established, far more vulnerable. A lot of the film’s frissons are telegraphed by Hyams’s and Butler’s studied holding of a shot in which little of interest is going on, long enough for us to realize that our attention ought to be elsewhere (Brubaker backing into a cave, far enough and long enough for us to know there’s something waiting for him in there; newsman Caulfield detained long enough with a pointless phonecall that we know it’s a decoy to effect the abduction of his friend Witter). The grim vision of Capricorn One is that the real nastiness of the world just beyond the frame’s edge is always a foregone conclusion.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Screenplay and direction: Peter Hyams. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Production design: Albert Brenner. Editing: James Mitchell. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Paul N. Lazarus III.
The players: James Brolin, Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black, David Huddleston, Robert Walden, Telly Savalas, David Doyle, Denise Nichols, Alan Fudge.