Monday, 2 June 2014

Capricorn One (1977)

The 1970s was a golden age of silly conspiracy theory movies and they don’t come much sillier than Capricorn One.

This is a movie I’ve always avoided. I had a feeling I was going to dislike it, but I actually found myself disliking it even more strongly than I’d expected to. More on that later.

The first manned mission to Mars is about to be launched, but in fact it never happens. Budget cuts had made the mission impossible to achieve but if the mission doesn’t happen  the program is likely to be shot down altogether. So what is the answer to this dilemma? Why not fake the whole mission? So that’s what happens. Television pictures of the astronauts landing on Mars are broadcast from a studio on Earth with a mockup of the Mars lander sitting on fake Martian terrain. Of course the conspiracy theory will turn out to be even more far-reaching and more sinister than that.

Would it really be possible to get away with such an elaborate fraud? Of course not. And indeed cracks soon start to appear in this intricate deception. Technicians notice small details that don’t make sense, and pretty soon one of those pesky investigative reporter types starts sticking his nose in.

The audience knows all about the deception almost from the beginning, the movie concentrating on the attempts to keep the cover-up secret, and the parallel attempts by the journalist to uncover the truth, complicated by the fact that he doesn’t know what that truth is.

Maybe it’s just me, but this strikes me as being a very mean-spirited nasty sort of movie. The sort of movie that delights in thinking the worst of people, and in thinking the worst of its own society. It is of course a movie that very much reflects the zeitgeist of the 70s, or at least the zeitgeist of Hollywood in the 70s, the zeitgeist Hollywood was trying to impose on us. I’m afraid it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me very much. It’s a movie that says to its audience that everything they believe in is worthless. Hollywood people thought that sort of thing was clever. They still do. Maybe this movie is really no more cynical and no more infected by fashionable pessimism and mockery than many other movies of its era, but given the pride that people had (quite justifiably) taken in the space program it seems to be particularly spiteful.

The late 70s was the high-water mark of the whole investigative reporter as noble hero thing. From the perspective of today journalists as crusaders for truth may strike many viewers as being even more far-fetched than the notion of faking a space flight.

Elliott Gould plays the investigative reporter hero Robert Caulfield. Gould is an actor who could at times be somewhat irritating. Or perhaps it would be more just to say he was rather good (possibly too good) at playing irritating characters. In this film he’s less annoying than usual and it is even possible almost to like his character. To be fair he could also play sympathetic characters reasonably well, as he does here.

James Brolin plays astronaut Charles Brubaker, the mission commander for the fake mission. He’s an actor I’ve never cared for and his bland performance here does nothing to change my opinion of him. The other two astronauts are played by a very young Sam Waterston and by O.J. Simpson. Waterston is OK. It’s difficult to watch Simpson without recalling certain notorious real-life events but his performance is generally as bland as Brolin’s.

Hal Holbrook gets the much more interesting role of the very ambiguous Dr Kellaway, the scientist behind the whole deception. Is he a sinister and willing agent of some giant conspiracy or a poor well-meaning but naïve scientist dragged into a deception that has spun out of control? Holbrook judiciously downplays his performance, making it all the more effective.

Karen Black and Telly Savalas both appear in subordinate roles and make the most of them. Telly Savalas is the best thing about this movie, joyously over-the-top as a crazy crop-duster pilot and effortlessly stealing all his scenes.

David Huddleston is even better as an outrageous congressman who is an enthusiastic supporter of the space program. He provides great entertainment but it’s somewhat unfortunate that his character is built up in a way that suggests he’s going to play some crucial role in the plot but he ends up playing no part in it whatsoever. Possibly the scenes that explained his role were cut and no-one noticed that that whole sub-plot went nowhere.

The Australian Blu-Ray release looks superb and is a vast improvement over the earlier very poor full-frame Region 4 DVD release.

Capricorn One is all very silly and is a perfect examplar, for better or for worse, of Hollywood in its most dismal decade. It has some entertainment value if you don’t take it seriously. Worth seeing for the aerial sequences towards the end, featuring the black helicopters, and for Telly Savalas.

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