It’s more of an action-packed conspiracy thriller—one in which director Peter Hyams channels both Alfred Hitchcock and Sydney Pollack. It presents the viewer with all the tension leading up to a monumental mission to Mars, only to supplant it with the cold reality that sometimes bureaucracy, budgets, and the human tendency to cut corners can put a damper on idealism.
The 1977 movie opens with the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson) sitting in their rocket during countdown, but then whisked away to a secret location by government agents. The mission director (Hal Holbrook) explains to the men that NASA “can’t take another screw-up” without losing the public’s trust, support and funding. He tells them that just weeks before the launch it was found that the life support system on the ship was faulty, so the decision was made to keep the astronauts on Earth yet still carry out the mission—with the public none the wiser.
The astronauts are given a tour of the movie set where they will be filmed taking the first steps on “Mars.” They are reluctant to participate, but Holbrook informs them that their families’ lives are in danger if they don’t play along. At this point Waterston’s character quips, “A funny thing happened on the way to Mars.”
The men do indeed end up playing along, of course. For months they keep up the charade of traveling to Mars, sitting in the fake Mars Lander in a studio while communicating with an evidently oblivious Mission Control in Houston. When the crew steps foot on “Mars,” they play a prerecorded message from the President of the United States to be broadcast over the transmission for the world to witness. It’s a message of unity and good will toward “people of all colors and creeds,” which—as the plot plays out—turns out to be a lie within a lie.
One of the Mission Control technicians, whose job it is to monitor radio signals, notices errors and inconsistencies and brings these up to his superiors. They tell him it’s nothing and not to worry about it. Eventually he and his news reporter friend (Elliott Gould) play pool after work one evening, and the technician begins to tell Gould about these mysterious findings. “I don’t care what they say,” says the friend, “those television transmissions couldn’t have come from 300 miles away.” In a very Hitchcockian moment, just as Gould is about to get the goods from his friend on the inside, the bartender tells him there’s a phone call for him. He goes to the bar and takes the mostly nonsensical call, and upon returning finds that his friend has mysteriously vanished. He makes a visit to this friend’s apartment the next day only to be met by a woman who doesn’t know the man and has never heard of him. He’s apparently been erased from society.
While reporter Gould is still out investigating what he’s now sure is a government conspiracy, wives of the astronauts are brought to mission control to watch the re-entry and landing of their husbands’ ship. The landing doesn’t go as planned.
From this point on it’s a tense thriller, with shades of “Three Days of the Condor” and “North By Northwest.” The astronauts break out of the secret compound and steal a private jet with government agents on their tail. Some of the landing gear is destroyed on takeoff, and they quickly realize they’re almost out of fuel. They’re forced to crash land in the Texas desert. They look on the vast and barren landscape, poignantly similar to that of Mars. They raid the jet’s survival kit and split up its contents. They each head in different directions, with the hope that one of them will reach civilization and expose the government’s fraud.
To great effect, Hyams uses a duo of black helicopters in pursuit of the astronauts as a metaphor for the cold and mechanical nature of the secret side of government. The viewer never sees the pilots, nor is any communication heard between the pilots and the government officials. All we see is faceless black helicopters bearing down on the fleeing men.
The resolution of the plot is satisfying and brief, but the most enjoyable element of “Capricorn One” is the succinct and simple handling of the pace of the film. Hyams has always been careful about how his films flow, keeping action sequences exciting while never regressing into prolonged, gratuitous vignettes that have no real bearing on the plot elements at hand. For Hyams, it’s always about story. Little else matters.
“Capricorn One” presents the viewer with a platter of science-fiction excitement and brilliantly pulls it back just before you can sink your teeth into it. Hyams attempts to show us that the potential for wonder and intrigue offered by space-faring stories can likewise be attained by exploring the evil tendencies of terrestrial man.