Monday, June 10, 2019

Capricorn One: Peter Hyams' Conspiracy Thriller

Moments before the launch of a manned mission to Mars, Capricorn One's three astronauts are secretly pulled from the rocket. Hidden from view, they are whisked away to a remote desert facility. As the empty rocket blasts off, the project director explains to the bewildered astronauts that he learned of a critical fault in their life support systems three weeks earlier.

The Capricorn One studio set.
With Congress already concerned about the Mars program's $24 billion price tag, certain individuals feared that a rocket launch cancellation could mean the end of federal funding. They made the decision to fake the mission. A recording of an earlier simulation would give the illusion that the astronauts were still on-board the rocket. However, it would be necessary for the three men to "act out" certain scenes, such as the Mars landing. That would be accomplished in a TV studio complete  with a Mars set and a replica of the landing module.

James Brolin's astronaut learns the truth.
When the astronauts refuse to go along with the massive deception, the project director expresses concern about the safety of their families: "There are people out there--forces out there--with a lot to lose." In other words, the three astronauts do not have a choice.

Made in 1977, Capricorn One is an entertaining thriller inspired by moon landing conspiracy theories. Writer-director Peter Hyams' central premise is that most people believe real-life events viewed through the lens of the news media. Therefore, if you could manipulate that media, then you could deceive the world. Hyams provides just enough detail to make his story work, such as the ingenious plan to send the space capsule off-course as it lands back on earth--thereby providing enough time to insert the astronauts into the capsule before the recovery team's arrival.

Elliott Gould trying to control his car.
Hyams propels the plot by cutting back-and-forth between the astronauts and a news reporter (Elliott Gould) who learns that something isn't right about the Mars mission. The latter storyline implies that the shadowy people behind the deception have limitless power and will stop at nothing--even murder. That leads to the film's two best scenes:  a nerve-racking sequence in which Gould can't stop his car as it speeds through crowded metropolitan streets and an aerial chase between a crop-dusting biplane and two military helicopters. (Parts of the car scene were later recycled in the TV series The Fall Guy.)

Capricorn One is what Hollywood moguls now call a high-concept film. As such, it doesn't require big stars and so the cast features actors like Gould (who worked with Hyams earlier in the comedy Busting), Hal Holbrook (the project leader), James Brolin (who heads the astronauts' team), Brenda Vaccaro (Brolin's wife), and O.J. Simpson (another astronaut). With the exception of Simpson, they all do solid work, which is all the script requires. It's worth noting that the cast includes both of Barbra Streisand's husbands: She was married to Gould from 1963-71 and has been married to Brolin since 1998.

The real star of Capricorn One is writer-director Hyams, who takes an outrageous premise and makes you believe--if only for a moment--that it could happen. Incidentally, in regard to the cast, Hyams said in a 2014 interview in Empire: "O.J. Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."


  1. Interesting, that you don't even mention that before he got into moviemaking, Peter Hyams spent most of the 1960s as a TV news anchorman - first in Boston, later in Chicago (which is where I first became aware of him).
    At WBBM-Channel 2, the CBS O&O station in Chicago, Hyams was the backup anchor to Bill Kurtis (weekends and daytime mainly). The story goes that he came up with the story for Capricorn One during this period; this would be about the time that he sold his first screenplay (T.R. Baskin with Candice Bergen), and was plainly thinking hard about a career change.
    Side note:
    My father hated Hyams as an anchor; he had bulgy eyes that made him look like a Keane painting of a newsman, and that drove Dad up the wall.
    Hyams also had a slight honk to his voice, and that didn't help either …
    Anyway, Chicago gave Hyams his ticket to Hollywood, So There Too.

    1. Hyams is an interesting person, no doubt. In addition to writing and directing, he also served as cinematographer on several of his films. That’s an oddity in mainstream filmmaking.

  2. I don't care much for Hyams work (The Relic was so run of the mill that it should have won an award for blandness), but actually prefer his 2010 to the classic 2001 -- but only because there was more substance to the story and it was told pretty well.

  3. This looks fab! I love movies about larger-than-live conspiracies. I think my husband would like this one, too. Thanks!