Capricorn One: The Best Sci-Fi Thriller You Never Saw

Peter Hyams’ Mars-landing conspiracy thriller Capricorn One, starring James Brolin and Elliott Gould is a lost gem.

As far as conspiracy theories go, very few have had as much of a life as the notion that NASA faked the Apollo moon landing. In some ways, one can understand why people felt this way, as it was one of the most critical events in human history, and the only witness was a TV camera. Back then, people distrusted anything they couldn’t see with their own eyes. In the seventies, conspiracy theories started to get famous, especially as far as the government went, with this the era of Watergate. People no longer trusted authority, and into this fraught environment came Capricorn One, a sci-fi-tinged conspiracy thriller that was one of the most popular films of 1977 but has since been largely forgotten – save for a small cult of devoted fans.

The film is directed by Best Movie You Never Saw favorite Peter Hyams, who also made Outland, 2010, Running Scared, and other legit gems. The movie centres around a crew of astronauts who, on the eve of the first manned mission to Mars, are taken to a television studio by NASA and told that due to a faulty life support system, the mission would have failed. Due to a potential cut in funding, they proceed to fake the mission, with the astronauts told that if they don’t cooperate, their families will be killed. Sounds like a pretty good premise, right?

Capricorn One is a real gem as far as movies of this kind go. In the late seventies and early eighties, there was a whole slew of movies produced by financier Lew Grade. These were technically independent films, but they were made on a lavish scale, with movie stars, and were the precursors to companies like Carolco. Only one problem, most of the Lew Grade movies sucked. People used to refer to him as Low Grade. He made some giant flops, including a Lone Ranger movie featuring an actor memorably named Klinton Spilsbury in the lead, whose voice ended up being dubbed. An even bigger flop was Raise the Titanic, which was an early attempt to film Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt. The movie was one of the most expensive films of the era and was such a flop that Grade snapped – “Raise the Titanic? It would have been cheaper to lower the ocean.”

One exception was Capricorn One, which was a significant financial success. It was an unlikely hit, as the two leading men, Elliott Gould and James Brolin, were in the middle of career slumps. Gould had been one of the biggest stars of the early 70s following MASH, but he made a movie called A Glimpse of the Tiger that was shut down mid-production and damaged his credibility. The fact that a series of financial flops followed it didn’t help, but around this time, he was mainly working in Canada on movies financed by tax shelters, like the excellent thriller The Silent Partner, and on movies in Europe. As for Brolin, he was ending his run on Marcus Welby, MD and was seen as a TV actor. This movie would be good for him, leading to his biggest hit, The Amityville Horror, shortly afterward. Interestingly, both men have marriages with Barbara Streisand in common, with Gould married to her from 1963 to 1971, while Brolin has been married to her since 1998.

The rest of the cast was an unusual jumble of seventies stars. Sam Waterston, who would become a beloved character actor, and the somewhat less beloved O.J. Simpson play Brolin’s crewmates, while Hal Holbrook plays the NASA bad guy. Brenda Vaccaro plays Brolin’s wife, Karen Black is Gould’s love interest, and best of all is a cameo by Telly Savalas, who was riding high at the time as the beloved bald detective Kojack. Savalas apparently only worked a day, but he gets to play a crop duster pilot who participates in the movie’s best action scene, a hair-raising chase between a bi-plane and two helicopters and also gets to save the day.

Capricorn one astronauts

So, as for the elephant in the room, what the heck is O.J Simpson doing in this movie? Let’s not forget that O.J, at the time, was better known as a beloved football star rather than a murderer, but I digress. He was a popular pitchman in this era and shown up in The Towering Inferno as a heroic security guard who rescues a kitten. He was trying to become an actor, and while Hyams said, at first, that he didn’t want to cast him, the two became friends, and this jumpstarted a solid career as an actor for OJ until – you know – he killed his wife.

One interesting thing about the movie is that despite them being portrayed as the movie’s villains, NASA was allaboard for Capricorn One. They provided technical assistance, mock-up vehicles and more, which is amazing as they portrayed as both dangerously incompetent and evil.

The movie runs a shade too long at just over two hours, but overall, it’s a pretty neat conspiracy thriller. The cast is perfect, as Brolin, Simpson and Waterston all look like they could have walked off a Wheaties box with their all-American looks. Gould is an interesting contrast, being more of a New York Jewish type, and the film really belongs to him as he uncovers the mystery. If you only know Gould from Friends or as daffy older types, you should check out his seventies output, with MASH, The Long Goodbye, California Split, The Silent Partner and this one all worth a look. There’s no one like him. Imagine Adam Sandler if he didn’t do comedies but did thrillers and dramas instead. That’s what you get with Gould.

Capricorn one chase

The movie has some nifty action scenes, including that tremendous bi-plane helicopter chase. It’s all tied together by a fantastic score by Jerry Goldsmith, with this being one of his finest works. The movie is very good, but the score is a masterpiece. Hyams, as usual, makes the film impeccably crafted, with Bill Butler, who shot Jaws, being his DP. Hyams had a reputation for usurping his DPs, but this one doesn’t have his usual look, making me think Butler got to shoot a lot of it.

One thing about Capricorn One is that it’s easy to find. Lew Grade’s ITC went out of business in the mid-eighties, and the rights to his movies have bounced around a lot and the package for them is pretty cheap, given how awful most of them are. You can find this movie streaming on TubiTV, Peacock, Roku, and even Plex.

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