Capricorn One – tape 873

Well now.

Today’s tape contains Capricorn One. I fear my attitude to this film was irrevocably set by a column in Starlog magazine about it. It was an angry opinion piece about how disgraceful the whole premise of the film was, and how it impugned the work of everybody who works on the space programme.

As time has passed, I’m also tending towards the theory that a lot of people saw this film when they were quite young, and have misremembered it as a documentary, and that’s why we have moon landing deniers.

So forgive me if I might not cut this film as much slack as I like to do with this blog. As somebody who believes that the moon landings were one of the greatest achievements of humanity, anything that labours under the premise that we’re not smart enough to do it isn’t going to be my favourite thing.

The film opens with an unmistakable Jerry Goldsmith score, as a rocket launch of a manned mission to Mars is in its final stages. Just before launch, the astronauts are unexpectedly told to leave the capsule, and taken away from the launch site.

The rocket, now without any passengers, takes off as if nothing’s wrong. It’s a sign of how cheap the film is, that the launch is only ever seen on monitors, obviously using stock footage. It’s a film about faking a mission to Mars, and they can’t even fake a rocket launch.

The astronauts are flown away from the launch. They’re played by James Brolin (father of Thanos), Sam Waterston, and, um, OJ Simpson.

The three astronauts arrive at a secret facility, where they are briefed by Hal Holbrook, the big cheese at NASA. He gives a big speech about how important the mission is, and how it can’t be seen to fail, otherwise the President will just cut the programme altogether. Then he tells them that the life support system that had been built wouldn’t be able to keep them alive for the whole mission, because of the contractor cutting corners – capitalism, eh? – and they couldn’t take the risk of scrubbing the mission.

Then he takes them next door, where they learn the plan, to fake the transmissions from the flight, and on the ground on Mars, on a movie soundstage.

On its own, this is a pretty batty scheme, but when Brolin expresses his unwillingness to go along with the plan, Holbrook tells them that all their families are flying home on the same jet, and if he doesn’t give the all clear, it will blow up. He’s literally a Bond villain.

Cut to two reporters waiting outside the house of an astronaut’s wife. It’s Elliot Gould and Karen Black. This film is not lacking for star power.

Brenda Vaccaro plays James Brolin’s wife. I’m struck by how she uses the phrase “I’m very excited, and proud”. It reminded me of the use of the similar line in Apollo 13 where all the wives have the same phrase to trot out for the cameras.

In Mission Control, controller Robert Walden has spotted an anomaly. “As if the TV signals are closer than the capsule.”

The time comes to broadcast the first steps on Mars. They have to cue slow motion live when he jumps from the ladder to the surface. I don’t quite understand why they are actually doing the thing live, though, since there’s no communication to the mission because of the time delay.

The controller who’s directing the fake landing is James B Sikking

Controller Walden plays pool with reporter Gould, bitching about how his report of anomalous data was dismissed. “Those broadcasts couldn’t have come from 300 miles away” he says.

The fakestronauts are on a break, and discussing whether to continue with the subterfuge. Brolin wants to reveal what’s happened, blow the whistle. The others are unsure. And as they’re discussing it, in the gallery, Sikking is listening. He warns Holbrook that Brolin might blow the whole gaff. So when they do a live link-up between the astronauts and their wives, a hand is hovering over the ‘Interrupt’ button while he’s talking to his wife. But he’s a good boy, and doesn’t spill the beans, he just promises to take his son to Yosemite ‘like last year’.

Elliot Gould is trying to find the NASA controller Walden, who has dropped off the grid. When he turns up at his address, the woman there tells him it must be the wrong apartment complex. She’s played by Barbara Bosson. But Gould insists it’s the right apartment as he’s been there plenty of times, as Walden is a friend of his.

But when he gets inside, it’s all different, and the woman has mail there addressed to her.

He leaves, and when he drives away he discovers his brakes have been but. Not only that, but it appears the throttle is stuck on full, the gear shift doesn’t work, and the key just pulls out of the socket. It’s a pretty comprehensive sabotage of the car, so full marks to the NASA engineers who solved that problem. It’s not quite the CO2 scrubbers scene from Apollo 13 but we must take whatever crumb of comfort we can from this mess.

The time comes for the crew to reenter the atmosphere, and they’re taken on a plane to the fake landing site. But the instruments in Mission Control show a problem with the heat shield.

The astronauts are taken somewhere, and Brolin realises they are literally dead men. If they were to reappear now, the whole conspiracy would be revealed. They escape and steal a jet, but they have to ditch in the middle of the desert, so they each head off in three directions, so there’s a chance that one of them will find a town before NASA find them.

There’s a scene where Brolin’s wife, Brenda Vaccaro, is reading Dr Seuss to her young son, and it’s heartbreaking. A lovely performance. The next day, Gould visits her, after he’s rewatched the conversation between her and her husband, where he mentioned Yosemite. He asks why she reacted that way and she says that they went somewhere else that year, a place called Flat Rock.

Gould visits Flat Rock. It’s an ‘authentic frontier town’. Someone shoots at him. When he returns to see Vaccaro, she shows him home movies of their trip to Flat Rock, where a movie was being filmed. “He couldn’t understand how something so fake could look so real.”

In the desert, Simpson and Waterston both get found by the NASA black helicopters, so I guess they’re both dead. Brolin is surviving by eating snakes. Meanwhile, Gould is digging around, much to the annoyance of his editor, David Doyle (Bosley off of Charlie’s Angels). His editor doesn’t like him because he’s ‘ambitious’. But at least he bails him out of prison when the feds arrest him for drug possession.

Gould finds the abandoned airbase where they filmed the landings, finds a clue, then hires Telly Savalas and his plane to look for astronauts. It’s a big desert, but maybe they’ll get lucky. Savalas keeps calling him a pervert. I think it’s supposed to be ‘character’.

They get lucky. They happen to fly over a remote garage at the exact same moment the black helicopters of NASA arrive. Both assume Brolin must be in there, absent of any actual evidence he is. But he is, and he eludes the nasty NASA men, just as Savalas is landing his plane nearby, slow enough for Brolin to run to jump on the plane. The improbability of every element of this scene would need an extremely strong cup of tea to calculate.

There follows a chase between cropduster and helicopters, during which, Brolin, a man who has been walking through a parched desert for days, is hanging on to the wing. In a film which stretches credulity at frequent intervals, this one throws credulity into the event horizon of a black hole and stretches it to infinite breaking point.

But, thanks to Telly Savalas’s flying and his ability to fire crop spray at helicopters, they escape. While this is happening, Brolin’s wife and son have been sitting at a funeral for the three astronauts. To give the film its due, the President’s speech here is actually really well written, assuming they were going for pompous, fatuous and empty, which I really believe they were. He even uses the word “limitlessness”. It’s very clumsy. This funeral must have gone on for a long time, because the wife was leaving for the funeral at the time Brolin was at the garage, because he phoned the house and we saw them leaving. Yet, while the President is still droning on, there’s been time for Brolin to have done all the aerobatics with Savalas and Gould, then flown to somewhere near where the funeral is taking place, catch a car, and drive to the funeral. Because he and Gould arrive during the president’s speech, and run in increasingly slow motion towards the funeral. I hope the freeze frame isn’t because in the next second, he was gunned down by secret service agents, like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Also, I’m fairly sure the slo-mo run wasn’t planned while they shot, because it wasn’t actually shot in true slow motion, the frame rate was slowed down in the editing, which makes it feel a bit clunky.

So, no, my rewatch hasn’t softened my heart to this film. Its premise still offends me mightily, and the execution is often nonsensical. It’s just not a good film, and I resent the kind of anti-science attitude it stands for,

BBC Genome: BBC One – 11th December 1989 – 22:40

After this, there’s the weather, and a public information film.

Then BBC1 closes down.


  1. As the silly movies involving astronauts go this is infinitely preferable to “Mission To Mars.” And considering other ITC movies not involving Muppets this may be the most enjoyable…
    Although I don’t mind admitting getting the Intrada release of Goldsmith’s music I was annoyed by the rubbish Granada International logo on the packaging. I suppose if it been a few years later it would have been ITV’s hideous branding…

  2. It was the 1970s – post-Watergate, people were seeing conspiracies everywhere. I predict if we do reach Mars with a manned mission, this film will enjoy renewed popularity, because conspiracies have truly gone mainstream now, for better or worse. OK, for worse.

    You didn’t mention one of the most blatant bits of product placement ever, for a certain fizzy drinks manufacturer. They’re in on it too!

    Better or worse than what Hyams did with 2001?

  3. I saw a fair portion of Capricorn One in 2005 late on ITV and must say that I enjoyed it a lot. The desert scenes were suspenseful and pretty much then, you knew the men were doomed. Elliott Gould was his usual sparky self and the final aerial action climax with Telly Savalas was supreme. So much so that they used that footage of the helicopter hitting the cliff, crashing and exploding in episodes of Universal action series like Airwolf (Echoes From The Past) and The A-Team (The Battle Of Bel-Air).

    Peter Hyams had worked with Gould before on Busting and he did other good movies like The Star Chamber and TimeCop.

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