Monday, May 4, 2015

Conspiracy Monday: Capricorn One

The poster says it all

This Conspiracy Monday post isn't about an alleged actual conspiracy but rather a fictional one--a faked Mars landing as portrayed in the wonderful 1978 movie Capricorn One.

Some think of this film as a guilty pleasure, but I think that undersells it. It's a fabulously entertaining roller-coaster ride of a movie that manages to make its outrageous premise believable, or at least believable enough, for its two hours and four minutes.

I claimed that the the conspiracy was one of fiction, but that's not quite true. The "Mars landing" of the story is really a half-heartedly veiled version of one of the Moon landings, perhaps the first Moon landing. And one assumes the filmmakers pulled back from that explicit premise out of fear of being politically incorrect. There are three astronauts in a small capsule--which, given the fact that they are going on a months long mission to Mars makes no sense--and the "landing" seems to consist of little more than stepping onto the surface, planting a flag and making a short speech. The 1970's technology is almost identical to that of the Apollo missions. And the "look" of the players--astronauts, Mission Control, the media, the families--is precisely that of the era. This isn't the near future but the present.

So, minutes before launch, the astronauts are secretly spirited out of the capsule to a secret warehouse in the desert and informed that due to an unanticipated defect in the life-support systems, "you guys would all be dead in three weeks." Since the Mars program is teetering on the edge of being canceled, an incredible scheme has been concocted to fake the landing on a soundstage and thus preserve the momentum for future missions. 

"I have to start by saying that if there was any other way, if there was even a slight chance of another alternative, I would give anything not to be here with you now. Anything"

The astronauts only agree to participate after being told that the lives of their families are now at stake:
You think it's all a couple of looney scientists, it's not! It's bigger. There are people out there, "forces" out there, who have a lot to lose. They're grown ups. It's gotten too big, it's in the hands of grown ups!
Amazingly, the plan goes along without a hitch, with the astronauts acting their roles from their desert location--though one tries to send a coded message home--until the "returning" capsule burns up in re-entry. (Was this planned? The film doesn't make it clear.) Obviously, the astronauts must now be eliminated...

What really makes the movie is the incredible ensemble cast of not-quite first-tier actors--or at least actors that were not quite first-tier at the time (1978), either because they were still on the way up--Sam Waterson, James B. Sikking and Barbara Bosson (the latter two would go on to star in Hill Street Blues a few years later)--on their way down--Elliott Gould, Telly Savalas and Hal Holbrook--or sort of permanent B-stars--Karen Black, Brenda Vaccaro, James Brolin and (of all people) O.J. Simpson.

There's a funny unrequited back and forth between the hack investigative reporter Gould and the TV anchorwoman Black, a black helicopters versus crop duster chase with Savalas, desert survival with Brolin eating a snake, an insane uncontrolled drive through city streets with breaks cut by the bad guys, faked space-capsul interviews, an endearingly off-color senator, people suddenly disappearing after they "ask too many questions", a thoroughly oily Holbrook, the new widow (or so she thinks) Vaccaro tearing up to her son who is so proud that "my daddy went to Mars", crooked FBI agents planting drugs and much more.

Without giving too much away the final scene is a triumphant stick-it-to-the-secret-government moment that is almost perfect.

Would that all conspiracies were this much fun.

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