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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Capricorn One

Peter Hyams wrote and directed Capricorn One (C1). It would be the big budget sci-fi movie for 1978. This, in stark contrast to the field of low-budget and marginal indie films that ’78 had seen thus far. The cast of C1 are recognized names in the 70s film world. James Brolin plays the lead as astronaut Charles Brubaker. Brenda Vaccaro plays his wife. Elliot Gould plays the persistent news reporter. Hal Holbrook plays the middle man between the astronauts and the sinister plot. C1 was a major studio effort, and did okay, but a bit “old school”. It became culturally overshadowed by Star Wars and the new-think of sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
With the usual techno-blather and ceremony, the three astronauts of Capricorn One are loaded into their capsule for man’s first manned mission to Mars. At T-minus-10 minutes, Flight Director Jim Kelloway ushers the men out of the capsule, and into a waiting Lear Jet. The rocket takes off without them. The three, Brubaker, Willis and Walker (OJ Simpson) are taken to an abandoned air base. They are told that the life support system for Capricorn One was faulty — the product of lowest-bid corporate corner cutting. They would have been dead in two weeks. But, if the mission was scrubbed, NASA would lose funding, so the mission will be faked. Jim shows them a sound state with a landing module on a fake Mars set. Jim asks them to cooperate for the good of the program, and hints that their families might die if they do not. They cooperate. They fake transmissions en route. Elliot, tech in Houston ,keeps noticing that the transmissions arrive too soon, like they’re only coming from 300 miles away, not millions of miles away. His observation is brushed aside by his bosses. Elliot starts to tell his reporter friend Robert about the odd vibes, but Elliot disappears without a trace. The landing is faked. Everyone applauds the success. In a homebound transmission, Brubaker gives his wife an insider hint by mistakenly saying they vacationed at Yosemite. Meanwhile, the re-entry is said to have failed and all three died instantly. Brubaker figures the new storyline out, and realizes that they will be killed to keep the secret. So, they escape in the Lear Jet. Trouble is, it had very little fuel. They belly land only a few dozen miles away, in the desert. Robert noticed Kay’s reaction to the Yosemite comment and asks her. She said they vacationed at Flat Rock — a western movie set, with comments about how ‘they’ can fake anything. Robert then realizes the mission was faked. Taking Elliot’s comment about 300 miles, he locates the only abandoned base in range. He finds evidence of the faking. Meanwhile, Brubaker, Willis and Walker have split up to go different directions. Jim sent a pair of killer helicopters to hunt them down. They find Walker first, then Willis. The helicopters locate Brubaker too, but Robert arrives in a crop-dusting plane her hired (Telly Savalas as the owner/pilot) They get Brubaker up on a wing and flee. The helicopters pursue. Through fancy flying, Telly evades the helicopters’ machine guns. He blinds them with crop dust. They crash into a cliff. At a grave-side memorial service for Brubaker, he and Robert drive up and run in slow motion as the astonished crowd turn to see. Freeze frame on happy Brubaker. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Setting aside the tinfoil hat aspect, C1 is well written and well presented story. Hyams does an excellent job with the visuals. The aerial chase is quite captivating. The acting is quite good too — OJ being the exception.

Cultural Connection
Conspiracy Theories — Two books were published, one in 1974, another in 1976, claiming that the Apollo landings on the moon had been faked. In the wake of the failure in Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal, cultural trust in government was at an epic low. Other films in the 70s, such as The Andromeda Strain and The Resurrection of Zachary Taylor, explored the government conspiracy trope. The broad tar brush assumed that if the government lied about somethings, that everything they said was a lie too. As such, Hyam’s 1978 story about a faked mission — which looked a lot like an Apollo mission — found a willing audience and added fuel to the fake moon landing theories.

Dual Villains — The double villains in the story are the government (naturally), but also the corporate-industrial-complex that depends on government funding. The two together, in a sort of dark symbiosis, perpetuate a lie in order to keep the money flowing. The problem, as explained by Jim, is that the public (the real source of the money) loses interest in programs. Public tolerance for big budgets (and therefore big taxes) wanes. So, in a mixture of Bread and Circus and The Matrix, the industrial complex and the politicians fabricate popular lies. Sensitivity to this dual-villain-hood is alive and strong, even today — 40 years later.

Mechanical Bloodhounds — An excellent touch by Hyams is how he handles the two Hughes 500 helicopters sent to track down the three escaped astronauts. Note how Hyams has them turn to “face each other” periodically, as if they were living beings consulting each other. This makes them seem almost alive themselves, like mechanical bloodhounds, rather in the way Spielberg made the greasy tanker truck become the villain in Duel, and not so much the truck driver. In reality, the two choppers are dozens of yards apart and facing in opposite directions, but with the long lens and tight shot, they appear to be looking in each others’ eyes. It’s a very effective move.

Fake vs. Reality — Hyams’ script plays with the notion of illusion vs. truth, as the broader theme of the movie, but also in many little vignettes throughout. For example, Robert is (apparently) always using lie-stories to try to seduce Judy. She always rebuffs him as a fake. “Why don’t you just be honest?” she asks. She is more attracted when he is sincere (and not just out to seduce her). “You’re less obnoxious when you’re helpless.” Note how Robert and his editor keep seeing their reality as a reflection of old movies. Reality mimics the fake. The obvious one, is the Brubaker vacation to Flat Rock where they watched a western being filmed. “How something so fake could look so real. With that kind of technology, you could convince people of almost anything.” While this applies to C1 directly, it applies to all movies. The amusing irony being that C1 is also a movie. The faked landing conspiracy in C1 is, itself, a fake — and yet so hungrily believed (by some) to be truth.

Plane Crazy — Aircraft fans can relish the co-starring effect the two Hughes 500 helicopters get. The aerial dual with Albain’s red Stearman 75 is great fun to watch. The Learjet 24 gets good coverage too. Note how the director staged the shots for the belly landing. Lots of dust is kicked up, but the foreground sagebrush conceals that the gear is down for a regular landing. The budget would not support destroying a Learjet. For that matter, the two helicopters that crash into the cliff are models. No budget for blowing up real 500s either.

Plot Holes? — C1 has its critics, many of whom feel the plot had holes that should have been filled. These may be the sentiments of “completists” who prefer to have all details explained. Many supposed holes amount to disbelieving the sinister government could successfully keep such secrets. For example, the disappearance of Elliott. Surely someone else in the bar noticed Elliott being abducted while Robert was distracted with the poor-connection phone call? Not necessarily. A plain woman comes in and asks Elliott to help her start her car. He leaves with her. The ambush outside where no one would see. A nerd leaving with a plain woman would hardly noteworthy to other bar patrons. Robert did not ask around the bar, probably because he thought Elliott simply left on his own. Yes, a lot of people would have to be “in on” the conspiracy, but they do not all have to know everything. The woman who took over Elliott’s apartment, for instance, knows she has only been there a few days. She has been told to lie, perhaps with her family similarly threatened, but need not know why she has to lie.

Rushed Ending? — Some criticize the happy slo-mo ending as too rushed. Movie audiences like happy endings. Studios give them to them. Yes, there could have been a darker ending where the government won after all — like a sniper taking out Bru and Robert with the cover story of a terrorist look-alike intent to bring anguish to the poor widow, etc. etc. But as much as the 70s were rife with distrust of the government, the people still want to imagine that they “win” in the end. Hope is hardly a plot failing.

Bottom line? C1 is a must-see. Even people who do not care for sci-fi can appreciate the conspiracy-thriller aspect. C1 is very 70s film, oozing with 70s conspiracy mythos. The action is plentiful and the writing has wit. The acting is good (if sometimes a bit too ‘colorful’). C1 is worth hunting down.

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