“Capricorn One” (1977) takes an all-star cast down a conspiratorial rabbit hole…


I feel the need to preface this review/analysis of 1977’s “Capricorn One” with a bit of personal opinion, since we live in an age where easily verifiable and demonstrable facts are currently called into question (i.e, the rise of Flat Earth and anti-vaccination movements).  I am not, nor have I ever been someone who doubts the validity of the Apollo manned lunar landingsAs longtime readers of this site might’ve gleaned over the past six or so years, I’m a longtime, passionate fan of real-life space exploration, having been a member of The Planetary Society for nearly 30 years. I even have a cousin who works at JPL.  I’m a firm believer in the manifold accomplishments of global space programs, so I don’t subscribe to nutty conspiracy theories.

A mission to Mars is faked in “Capricorn One”; the movie that added fuel to the fire of many conspiracy theorists…

With that out of the way, the primary focus of this column is sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, and in that regard, “Capricorn One”—despite its inherently ridiculous premise (which I’ll get into later)—is a very entertaining movie with a solid cast, and some of the best (practical) aerial stunt footage prior to “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022).  Writer/director Peter Hyams (“Outland,” “2010: The Year We Make Contact”) has crafted a cynical, suspenseful, well-acted thriller with just enough action, humor and adventure to make the inherently ridiculous premise go down that much easier.  I intend to review “Capricorn One” as a movie, not a docudrama.

While I only remember seeing the movie on TV growing up (missed it in theatrical release), I screened it on a 7 ft/2 meter screen via my HD digital projector in a darkened room for this review, to give it as close to a theatrical presentation as possible.

“Capricorn One” (1977)

US Congressman Hollis (David Huddleston) antagonizes Vice-President Price (James Karen) and his wife (Virginia Price) by debating space program funding at the ‘launch’ of Capricorn One.

The movie opens on a January morning space launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, circa late 1970s.  An Apollo-era Saturn V stands on the launchpad, as VIPs are seated outdoors to observe the launch.  US Congressman Hollis (David Huddleston), who has a vested interested in the space program for his district, finds himself seated next to Vice President Price (James Karen) and his wife.  Price isn’t entirely convinced of the need and cost of manned spaceflight, as he relays the best wishes of the president, who was more focused on reelection than humanity’s first manned mission to Mars.  The blatantly cynical Hollis (who earlier bullies a young usher into giving him a second pair of commemorative VIP binoculars for his wife) takes a few guarded political potshots at the VP, whom he catches staring at a reporter’s shapely posterior instead of the rocket…  

Note: The characters of Rep. Hollis and VP Price don’t come off particularly well today.  Hollis comes off as a typical pork-barrel project politician, while Price makes a fair point about the cost of a manned Mars mission in light of current US issues. In fact, newer estimates have proven that a manned Mars mission would cost more than any one nation, even a nation as wealthy as the US, could easily absorb. Both make their points, even if Hollis is made to seem more just somehow.

The three astronauts of Capricorn One, Charles Brubaker (Josh Brolin), John Walker (OJ Simpson) and jokester Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) experience ‘capsule egress’ a bit earlier than anticipated…

Meanwhile, on the launchpad, the crew of Capricorn One are fully suited-up, and are being seated into the command module.  That crew includes Commander Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), John Walker (OJ Simpson) and in-flight jokester Peter Wilson (Sam Waterston).  As the countdown narrows to the final seconds before liftoff, the main hatch is opened from the outside—to the ire of Brubaker, who demands to know what’s going on.  A nameless suit tells him that there’s no time to explain and that they need to leave the spacecraft now.  The crew unplugs their umbilical lines from the ship and execute emergency capsule egress…

Note: To those who might be justifiably freaked out by the presence of accused double-murderer OJ Simpson in the movie (who was later found liable for those two murders in a civil suit), I sympathize with how you feel, but if you can, try to watch his performance in context. If it’s any comfort, Simpson wasn’t Peter Hyams’ first choice, either; he wanted Robert Hooks or Bernie Casey (either of whom would’ve been an improvement to the lackluster performance given by studio-choice Simpson, I agree).

Ready or not, here it goes…
The Capricorn One’s Saturn 5 booster lifts off autonomously, sans crew.

With the crew evacuated, the now-unmanned spacecraft blasts off on automatic controls. The mission controllers in Houston monitor the flight, and are fed audio responses from the crew taken from prior simulations. The crew changes from their bulky spacesuits into standard NASA coveralls as they’re herded onto a small private plane, where they are jetted off to Texas…

Note: A few things to unpack. The launch of the main Saturn V rocket is controlled from Florida until it clears the tower—only then are flight operations turned over to the Johnson Space Center in Houston (the movie shows Houston controlling liftoff as well).  While a Saturn V booster rocket would certainly be powerful enough to put a Mars mission into orbit (or at least its main components), a tiny Apollo-era command module and lunar module (which we later see) are simply not up to the task of a Mars mission.  The command module lacks adequate space and life-support, while the fragile lunar module would burn up upon entering the Martian atmosphere during descent (you could literally punch through its thin walls with a bare fist in some places).  Despite the movie’s cynical attitude towards NASA, the space agency fully cooperated with the production, even loaning mockups of its Apollo spacecraft for use in the film. Houston’s Mission Control Center is also faithfully recreated on a L.A. studio soundstage, as well.

Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) prepares the crew for one helluva surprise…

The plane lands at a top-secret government facility deep in a southwestern desert (shades of Area 51).  Upon landing, the crew are escorted to a generic, all-white conference room that’d be at home in a Stanley Kubrick film.  Enter Dr. James Kelloway, played by the late, great Hal Holbrook (1925-2021). Kelloway, an old friend of Brubaker’s, tells the men how deeply sorry he is to have pulled them off their flight, as he proceeds to tell them why. The contractor for the command module life-support mechanism (Con-Amalgamate; the same company mentioned in Hyams’ “Outland”) built a shoddy, subpar system that would’ve killed the crew within three weeks.  With no time to replace it before launch, a decision was made to come up with an alternative plan.  Kelloway also goes on about the cynical nature of the world today, and how little people seem to care about manned space exploration—in stark contrast to the heady days of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.  It’s a riveting monologue, and Hal Holbrook creates (for awhile, anyway) a very sympathetic “man in black.”  Kelloway then asks the men to follow him out of the conference room…

Note: The late Hal Holbrook was an American treasure.  I once saw him do his one-man Mark Twain show live onstage back in 1989, and he was absolutely riveting. It was an evening and a performance I’ll never forget.  

Lights, Cameras…Action!
Dr. Kelloway welcomes the crew to “Mars,” which is located somewhere in a remote, top-secret soundstage…

Kelloway and the crew then enter an adjacent hangar, where we see the ‘backup plan’; the hangar has been converted into a movie soundstage of the Martian surface, with a mockup landing module, and an appropriately rust-hued cyclorama of Martian sky.  Off to the side, there is a mockup of the command module, as well.  Kelloway tells the crew these mockups will be used only for TV broadcasts, and nothing more—everything else will be fed to Mission Control via tapes made during their hours of training.  Brubaker is appalled at being asked to lie for the sake of saving the program, and says that if a lie is the only way to keep the dream alive, then perhaps it deserves to die.  Kelloway interjects—the astronauts have to go along with this charade, because a bomb has been planted on the plane carrying their families from Florida back to Houston, in order to ensure their cooperation.  Realizing he’s ruined their long-standing friendship, a contrite Kelloway tells Brubaker that it’s out of his hands now—they have to cooperate.  With no choice, Brubaker, Willis and Walker reluctantly agree. 

Kelloway lays out the stakes to Brubaker, which includes threatening the astronauts’ families for their cooperation. The Apollo command module behind them was a NASA mockup on loan to the production.

Note: I’ve already mentioned the incongruity of an Apollo lunar module being used as a Mars landing vehicle, so I’m going to focus on a positive instead; the soundstage for the mockup Martian surface is quite realistic.  Based on colors and topography from the 1976 Viking Mars landers, it’s a credible-enough illusion, especially in context. The low-resolution television cameras of the late 1970s were nowhere near as clear and sharp as today’s HD imagery, which would easily shatter such an illusion. But in 1978…?

Reporters camping out in front of the Brubaker’s suburban household include Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) and Judy Drinkwater (Karen Black), whom Caulfield wants to “jump” (ah, that hip ’70s lingo...).

We then cut to a pool of TV reporters outside of the suburban Houston home of astronaut wife Kay Brubaker (Brenda Vaccaro), who is preparing to ‘meet the press’ gathered outside her front door.  In the press pool is world-weary reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who is chatting up fellow reporter Judy Drinkwater (Karen Black), in an increasingly obnoxious attempt to woo her.  Eventually, their made-for-TV mating rituals are mercifully cut short as Kay appears and answers a few softball questions about how she and her two kids are coping while her husband is en route to Mars, etc.

Note: The dialogue between Caulfield and Judy, meant to be a ‘modern’ evocation of 1930s screwball comedies, sounds very artificial—even a bit tin-eared.  It’s humorous, yes, but the line about Caulfield wanting to “jump” Judy sounds ridiculous.  All the same, Elliott Gould throws his back into the colorful role of Caulfield, creating a rumpled mess of a reporter who makes for a decent audience avatar—the perfect 1970s man, straining to be sensitive, while still coming off a bit cringeworthy. Interesting that two of singing legend Barbara Streisand’s husbands are in the film; Elliott Gould (former) and James Brolin (current). The late Karen Black (1939-2013), an amazing actress (see: 1975’s “Trilogy of Terror”), is terribly underused in the movie.

Caulfield’s conveniently-employed friend at Houston’s Mission Control Center, Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden), finds something very wrong with the spacecraft’s signals.

A few months into the mission, Mission Controller Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden), is monitoring radio signals from the spacecraft when he detects an anomaly; the signals from the Mars-bound spacecraft appear to be coming from only a few hundred miles away.  Unable to resolve this differential, he meets with his reporter buddy Caulfield for pool and drinks at a downtown Houston bar.  Whitter tells his drunken friend about the radio signal anomaly, and how his supervisors tried to hush it up without investigation.  Smelling a story, a suddenly-sober Caulfield is curious.  Just as Elliott is about to tell him more, Caulfield is pulled away by a phone call at the bar. The call is a (deliberate) crank, but when Caulfield returns moments later, his friend Elliott is nowhere to be found.  Going to Elliott’s apartment the next day, he finds a new tenant who insists she’s lived there for over a year, with a convenient collection of back-issue magazines (with her address) as proof. Elliott has been seemingly erased from existence… 

Note: Actor Robert Walden, who plays Whitter, also costarred with Hal Holbrook in 1976’s landmark real-life political thriller, “All the President’s Men,” which chronicled reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they uncovered the Nixon administration’s attempt to fund a burglary on 1972 Democratic Convention headquarters. A great (and still-relevant) film; not to be missed.

Walker and Willis consider what effect a ‘space mutiny’ might have on their families…

Months into their faux mission, Brubaker, Walker and Willis are on the Martian soundstage contemplating their next move.  The following day is expected to be their big ‘landing’ on Mars, which will be broadcast live all over the world (with a faked time delay, of course). Brubaker tells them he can’t go through with it; he’s tired of lying to everyone, and he wants out.  Walker reminds him that their families’ lives are on the line as well.  Tossing out a few of his infamous jokes, Willis also agrees with Walker’s sentiment; if they mutiny, on live-TV, it may put their families at risk. Reminded of the stakes—and the fact that they’re being watched—Brubaker grudgingly agrees with his men.

Note: Actor Sam Waterston has since become a legend on TV with his ongoing role in “Law & Order”; a role he’s had for over 32 years now. The typical jokester astronaut (usually from Brooklyn) is a cliché seen in almost every space exploration movie made since the 1950s, but Sam Waterston really invests in the role, giving Willis an honest likability that a lesser actor might not have—even while trotting out the stalest dad jokes you’ve ever heard (as a fan of dad jokes, I can’t complain, though viewer results may vary).

Mission To Mars.
Brubaker and Walker are forced to play along in a simulated Mars mission.

Overhearing Brubaker’s comments from the previous day, the men-in-black prepare to cut off the live transmissions from “Mars” if Brubaker tries to go off-script.  Both Brubaker and Willis go along with their faked ‘historical moment,’ as their final jumps off the lander are slow-motioned to simulate lighter Martian gravity (little more than a third of Earth’s). Once on the surface, an almost robotic-sounding Brubaker dutifully pans the camera around the soundstage’s rocky floor, before planting the flag and playing the president’s pre-taped message from Earth, which congratulates the men on their ‘historic mission.’  Back at Mission Control in Houston, the late Elliott Whitter’s console is conveniently shut down for ‘repairs’—with no one available to trace the signal to its terrestrial source…  

Note: While the movie’s audience can clearly see the lander’s shadow on the cyclorama of the soundstage, the astronauts cleverly cheat the TV audience views with their own handheld cameras, sticking to closeups of the soil, their boots, the flag, etc. The pre-taped presidential message evokes former president Richard Nixon’s real-life phone call to the Apollo 11 crew on the lunar surface. 

Not exactly long-distance.
The crew is forced to put on a happy face for their families back ‘home’…

Preparing for the trip ‘home,’ the astronauts are scheduled to do a live video-chat with their wives as their proximity to Earth would now allow for realtime radio communications.  Along with Kay, we also see Betty Walker (Denise Nicholas) and Sharon Willis (Lee Bryant), gathered in front of microphones at the Mission Control Center.  Coming onscreen, we see the astronauts aboard their simulated command module, each of them sounding despondent, but generally sticking to the script, with Willis quietly blurting to his wife that he’s “closer than you think.” After his men chat with their wives, Brubaker speaks to Kay, who reads an essay their son proudly wrote about his dad’s trip to Mars.  Tearing up, Brubaker reminds Kay that when he comes home, he’ll take the family to Yosemite—as they did “last summer.”  Kay seems caught off-guard by his remark. Not wanting to correct or embarrass her husband, she agrees. 

Kay Brubaker (Brenda Vaccaro) is puzzled by her husband’s deliberate misremembering of their last family vacation…

Caulfield, still following the elusive trail of his friend’s mysterious disappearance, watches footage of Kay’s quizzical look during the video chat, which was broadcast all over the world.  Later, during a second visit to the Brubaker home, he learns Kay was surprised that her husband seemingly misremembered their last family vacation, which wasn’t in Yosemite. The Brubakers took their kids to a movie ranch, where they saw a western being filmed.  Kay remembers her husband Charles remarking, “with that kind of technology, they can make you believe anything.” 

Note: Actress Brenda Vaccaro was very memorable as the bored Manhattan housewife “Shirley,” who sleeps with Texas-born ‘hustler’ “Joe Buck” (Jon Voight) in the memorable and haunting “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), which deservedly took home a Best Picture Oscar in 1970, despite an X-rating (later changed to an R).  While her housewife role in “Capricorn One” is quite different from “Midnight Cowboy”’s Shirley, the whiskey-voiced Vaccaro maintains an earnestness that always rings authentic—whether playing a bored urbanite or a brave astronaut wife.

Caulfield finds himself in very deep water with the Feds…

Kay’s remark triggers something in Caulfield’s admittedly overactive imagination, which is further influenced by several attempts on his life. Most dramatically when his car’s brakes and gas pedal are both tampered with, sending his car careening wildly through the streets of downtown Houston before flying across an open drawbridge into Galveston Bay—all of which Caulfield miraculously survives.  

Note: Caulfield’s runaway car—with its cut brakes and stuck gas pedal—is filmed in fast-motion through the recognizable streets of Long Beach, California (the palm trees are a dead giveaway), while his splashdown into what’s supposed to be Galveston Bay appears to be the drawbridge at Long Beach Harbor.  Nevertheless, the sequence is both exciting and almost entirely real, save for the camera’s artificially sped-up frame rate.  The movie’s cinematographer is no less than the legendary Bill Butler (1921-2023), who recently passed away at the age of 102.  Butler was the cinematic genius behind such memorable movies as “JAWS,” “The Right Stuff,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (which beat “JAWS” for Best Picture), and the “Rocky” sequels II-IV.  Butler’s unique brand of movie wizardry will be deeply missed.

Sorry, Charlie…no angels in your corner, today.
Caulfield’s editor Walter Loughlin (David Doyle) gives him 24 hours to find some evidence or else–because he saw the movie, too.

Back in the newsroom, Caulfield pleads to his unsympathetic editor, Walter Loughlin (David Doyle) for more time to follow up on his potentially earth-shattering story.  Loughlin confesses that he doesn’t like “Scoop” Caulfield, noting Caulfield’s lack of interest in covering bread-and-butter stories about politics, wars, crime, etc.  Giving Caulfield just 24 hours to come up with proof of his mysterious conspiracy, Loughlin later fires Caulfield, following his arrest (after a team of Feds plant cocaine in Caulfield’s apartment). With no one left to turn to, Caulfield makes his one phone call to Judy, who not only bails him out, but loans him her car (!).  The ever-patient Judy even gives Caulfield some cash so that he can follow a lead to a remote air base in the Southwest, where his late friend Whitter’s mysterious radio signals appeared to have originated from.  Later, at the now-abandoned base, Caulfield finds a medallion worn by Brubaker, proving that this is where the Mars broadcasts were faked…

Note: Two things.  First, actor David Doyle (1929-1997) was best known for his work in the popular TV series, “Charlie’s Angels,” where he played the middle-manager “Bosley” for a group of sexy private eyes (I had a serious boyhood crush on Cheryl Ladd—I won’t lie).  Doyle is very memorable in his role as editor Walter Loughlin. Secondly, Karen Black’s “Judy” character is little more than Caulfield’s doormat in this film. She’s functions as his car rental agency, bail bondsman, ATM, and object of sexual harassment.  Such a shame.  The talented Karen Black could’ve just as easily played the Caulfield character herself, in my opinion. 

“We…are dead!”
Brubaker realizes their role in the Mars fiction has come to a fatal conclusion.

The sequestered astronauts’ situation goes from bad to worse when their command module is scheduled for splashdown.  A defective heat-shield on the unmanned craft causes it to burn up on reentry (one more item those contractors at Con-Amalgamate skimped on).  Expecting to be flown to their awaiting capsule in the Pacific for “recovery,” Brubaker and the others realize that something must’ve gone wrong for them to be waiting so long.  As Dr. Kelloway prepares to give a heartfelt eulogy for the ‘brave men’ during a press conference, Brubaker tells his men, “We…are dead!”  Knowing that Kellerman and his men-in-black will stop at nothing to maintain their silence, Brubaker, Walker and Willis take their locked conference room door off of its hinges, and decide to make a break for freedom.  Slipping out of the hangar, they make their way outside to the small plane which delivered them.  Overpowering a guard, Brubaker and his crew now prepare for a real mission—their own survival.  They steal the plane and head west, over a hostile desert which seems to stretch for miles all around them. 

Note: A nice editing juxtaposition is made during Kelloway’s press conference, where he eulogizes the ‘lost’ astronauts and the worth of the program they ‘died’ for, as the movie continually cuts to the men actually fighting to save their own lives!  The frequent cuts between the press conference and the rogue astronauts carefully builds the suspense of their escape—which is greatly aided by another masterful score from the late great Jerry Goldsmith (“ALIEN,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Planet of the Apes”).  The music picks up tempo and drive as the men steal the plane and fly away from their air base prison in the remote desert—a strong undercurrent of hope returning to this deliberately dark and cynical movie. 

Out of fuel and forced to land in all-too terrestrial desert, the crew are forced to split up in order to increase their odds.

Once airborne, the men learn that their stolen jet is nearly out of fuel, which forces them to land in the middle of a hostile desert (roughly analogous to what would’ve been their heralded landing on Mars). Making their situation worse, Kelloway has ordered a pair of military helicopters to pursue them. Upon landing, the three men decide to split up in order to increase their odds of reaching help. Brubaker gives Walker and Willis a flare gun from the plane’s survival kit, so that if any one of them is caught, they can signal the others.  Not knowing exactly where they are, they each pick a direction, with Brubaker heading west.  

Note: Such a situation would be very familiar to all astronauts, who are forced to undergo intense survival training in the event that their return vehicle lands off-course—a situation that occurred when the very first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, ejected from his Vostok capsule after reentry and landed in a northern region of the lower Volga wilderness.  Would-be astronauts (or cosmonauts, teikonauts, etc) still undergo such harsh survival training, usually in a deep wooded forest or extreme desert, even today.

Cold-blooded Kelloway has no issues with hunting down his longtime friend “Bru.”

Meanwhile, Kelloway—who’s already paid a sympathy call to ‘widow’ Kay—is carefully coordinating efforts to capture the rogue astronauts.  Under the intense desert heat, we see Walker futilely scrounging for subsurface water beneath the dry sand.  The delirious Walker, his dry lips cracked, begins to mumble to himself as he looks off into the sky and sees a mirage of what he thinks are birds.  However, it soon becomes clear these ‘birds’ are the twin choppers sent to hunt them down.  A good-as-dead Walker fires off his flare, which is seen by the others.  In other part of the desert, we see Willis climbing a steep hill, all the while entertaining himself (and keeping his sanity) by telling an old joke about two brothers and a dead cat.  As the joke reaches its punchline (“She’s on the roof!”), Willis reaches the top of the hill—where the two helicopters have landed and are waiting for him.  Another flare is fired.  With the other two men dead, Kelloway orders the helicopters to concentrate their search west—where Brubaker must be headed.

Note: The use of distress flares to herald each character’s capture/death is both logical and very dramatic—a final, futile hurrah, before succumbing.

Brubaker is forced to dine on a freshly-killed rattlesnake in order to survive.

With the twin helicopters focusing on his capture, Brubaker seeks shelter in a desert cave, where he soon realizes he’s not alone—a coiled, triggered rattlesnake is his unfortunate roommate. Having been through too much to be afraid of a damn snake, Brubaker wraps his left hand with ripped pieces of his flightsuit, and grabs a rock with the other.  As the rattler strikes his thickly-insulated hand, he smashes its head with the rock.  He then uses his pocket-knife from the survival kit to gut the dead reptile.  A look of both disgust and tearful indignity crosses Brubaker’s desert-worn face as he’s forced to eat his former foe for dinner… 

Note: The rattlesnake sequence is another memorable moment in a film chock-full of them. According to producers, the snake’s innards were actually raw sushi and food coloring used to simulate fresh blood. Actor James Brolin had also fought a rattlesnake (a robotic one) in the 1973 sci-fi film, “Westworld” (the inspiration for the 2016 HBO series). While we all imagine we could do (and eat) whatever we have to in order to survive, this scene reminds me how grateful I am to be a vegetarian now.

Who loves ya, baby?
Caulfield hires a crazy, crop-duster named Albain (Telly Savalas).

Following the trail cobbled together from his sources (and in Judy’s borrowed car), Caulfield locates a remote cropdusting plane rental agency in the vicinity of the now-abandoned air base.  Caulfield plans to rent the plane and scout the surrounding desert for possible survivors of the great Mars landing hoax. The owner of the rental plane, a crusty, colorful old bastard named Albain (Telly Savalas), doubles his rental price for Caulfield, since he realizes the reporter “ain’t no farmer.”  Albain also believes Caulfield to be a “pervert.”  Think “Quint” from “JAWS” with a biplane, and you get the idea.  Soon, Caulfield and Albain are airborne, with Caulfield sitting up front to scout for the missing astronauts, as an irritated Albain repeatedly yells at him to “keep yer goddamn head down!” 

Note: This movie’s guest star list reads almost like a TV Guide description for an episode of “The Love Boat.”  The late Telly Savalas (1922-1994), like David Doyle and James Brolin, was primarily known for TV roles. Savalas, of course, was most famous for playing the titular “Kojak” on the 1973-1978 CBS detective show.  Originally, director Peter Hyams wanted Donald Pleasance (“Halloween”) for the role of the old crop-duster Albain, but the actor was unavailable.  Interestingly, both Pleasance and Savalas each played the Bond villain “Blofeld” in different James Bond movies (“You Only Live Twice” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” respectively).  The salty Savalas is certainly memorable in what could’ve been a forgettable part.

When airlines overbook…
Brubaker is forced to fly no-class on Air Albain.

Once airborne, Caulfield and Albain spot Brubaker, in his dirty but distinctive NASA jumpsuit, just as he emerges from a remote, abandoned gas station after he barely manages to fight his way through a group of armed feds. With no room on the biplane for a passenger, Caulfield orders Albain to let Brubaker ride on the wing—holding onto its support struts for dear life. What follows next is, in my opinion, one of the most thrilling all-practical aerial combat sequences ever committed to film as Albain’s plane engages the two pursuing government helicopters in a deadly game of cat and mouse, while an exhausted Brubaker hangs on (or rather, James Brolin’s tenacious stunt double).  Thanks to the gruff Albain’s deft piloting and the release of his pesticide payload, the two closely-pursuing helicopters are destroyed, with the last one smashing into a canyon wall.  Brubaker is safe.

Scratch another bad-guy, in one of the most exciting, all-practical aerial stunt set pieces I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Note: Once again, a reminder that this sequence was also created in the pre-digital era, without any visual effects augmentation, save for miniatures used in the actual helicopter crashes. The only other signs of artifice are in the closeups of the three actors riding in the biplane, which are clearly done with in-studio rear projection.  But the rest is all practical, and it’s simply stunning. I am not exaggerating when I say this aerial chase is one of the most thrilling practical stunt sequences I’ve ever witnessed, save for Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane in the “Mission: Impossible” movies. If only they gave Oscars for stunt work…

Mrs. Brubaker and her kids put on a brave front en route to the astronauts’ funeral.

After Brubaker’s harrowing ride on the wings of Albain’s biplane, we cut to Kay and her grieving kids riding in a limousine procession to Arlington National Cemetery (nee: Westwood Cemetery in California), where the funeral for the three astronauts is to take place. The Brubaker family arrives to see TV news crews everywhere. As the funeral begins, heartfelt eulogies are spoken and honors are given. We then see a small red Datsun sports car off in the distance, crashing the funeral…

Caulfiend and his “Plus One” crash the astronauts’ funeral.

Two figures emerge from the car, and run towards the large gathering of mourners and (more importantly) the collection of cameras.  As the attendees get a better look, we see a disbelieving Kay and a mortified Kelloway realize that it’s none other than Charles Brubaker—still in his NASA jumpsuit—along with Robert “Scoop” Caulfield, the reporter who broke the case. TV cameras suddenly swing away from the lectern to cover this ‘dead’ astronaut crashing his own funeral. We are left to imagine what happens next …

The End.

Note: The movie wisely ends at this point, instead of given us a ‘one year later’ coda, or some other superfluous ending.  After engaging us for an economical 124 minutes, it’s up to the audience to imagine the political fallout. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and (particularly) the Watergate scandal, this would be as shocking as America could’ve been shocked back in 1978.  However, in the current age of social media and 24-48 hour news cycles?  I have a feeling a real version of the Capricorn One scandal would be out of the headlines in less than a week.

Summing It Up

The tone of “Capricorn One” is very much of its time.  In 1977, post-Vietnam/Watergate America thought it had reached the apex of cynicism (oh, such innocent bygone days), and the movie plays directly into that vibe.  The dialogue sometime sounds a bit overly-stylized at times, however, that is also part of the movie’s charm—alternating between realistic post-Watergate cynicism and 1940s noir-mysteries (the Caulfield character even references such films with his boss). “Capricorn One” feels like Peter Hyams’ own Hitchcockian, “North By Northwest”-style ode to the space program, as filtered through a cynical, post-Watergate lens.

The Eagle has (really) landed.
Aldrin and Armstrong set up the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Scientific Experiments Package) in Mare Tranquilitatis (the “Sea of Tranquility”) in July of 1969.

Despite NASA’s generous cooperation with the production (loaning full-size mockups, and other authentic touches) the movie very anti-NASA. It’s possible NASA’s PR people might’ve seen a lack of cooperation with the production as giving legitimacy to the the movie’s premise.  Perhaps this explains the movie’s blatantly erroneous use of Apollo-era mission-specific lunar technology for a mission to Mars, where such hardware simply wouldn’t work—maybe NASA itself wasn’t taking the movie’s ideas too seriously, either (?).

“2001: A Space Odyssey,” made in 1968, was state-of-the-art at the time of its creation, and even its simulated lunar landings were not quite accurate–most notably its attempts to depict lunar gravity, which puts a lot more spring in an astronaut’s step.

The movie’s conspiratorial high-concept is meant to touch its audience’s critical-thinking receptors, though not too deeply. If one thinks about the premise of “Capricorn One” too much, it falls apart. Given movie-making technology of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it would’ve been far easier to simply launch humans to the moon rather than attempt to fake such voyages realistically on a soundstage with clunky, pre-CGI, analog-era technology.  Even “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the best that could be made at the time) got a few major elements wrong, such as lunar gravity, for example.  

All the same, if one can simply relax and enjoy “Capricorn One” on its own merits (amazing stunt-work, a game cast and gritty cinematography), there is a thrilling adventure to be enjoyed under all of that cynical armor. 

Where To Watch.

“Capricorn One” is currently available to stream for free on both PlutoTV and TubiTV (with ads), as well as the premium streaming site, Peacock.com (not free).  The movie can also be rented or purchased via AmazonPrime, YouTube, and other streaming services (prices vary).  The movie is also available for purchase on DVD and BluRay from Amazon.com (again, prices vary by seller).

Images: Warner Bros, Lionsgate

5 Comments Add yours

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It may not occur to most people the flaws of an acclaimed or favourite SF classic until it finally gets pointed out in reviews. Even if one would guess that astronaut suits in 2001 for the Moon may have special grip boots, like the grip shoes the stewardess had on Dr. Floyd’s first flight, it was easier to embrace what advanced FX gave films for realistic lunar gravity in due time.

    Thanks for your review.

    1. You know how much how I love 2001, I’m sure, but of course, when it was in production, humans were still a good few years from landing on the moon. 2001 was as good as possible for its time, and it still holds up today, in spite of the obviously dated title.

      1. scifimike70 says:

        The title for Arthur C. Clarke’s original short story that 2001 was based on, The Sentinel which centered on the aliens leaving a signaling artifact on the Moon, certainly felt like a better title.

      2. I read that story way back in middle school. Still have it around here, in my disheveled mess of a home library, somewhere…

        It’s also part of a wonderful book called “The Worlds of 2001”, which chronicles the evolution of the story; a great read, if you can get a copy on eBay or Amazon.

      3. scifimike70 says:

        Thanks. I remember listening to an audio read of The Sentinel on YouTube some years ago.

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