Notes on “Capricorn One”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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There is one great moment in the 1978 “Capricorn One”: a slow track away from a group of astronauts who are acting out a Mars landing for the benefit of a credulous public. As the head astronaut delivers a goopy speech, invoking peace, equality, and the unity of the world’s nations, the tidy, staged-for-TV image is gradually undermined. The elements of a sound stage — lights, rigging, wires — become visible on the perimeter of the set. And as this happens we’re alerted to the propagandistic nature, not just of the movie’s fictional hoax, but of all the elements of mass media — its canned images, predigested ideals, uplifting sentiments, etc. This bit, revealing the rift separating the message from the raw stuff of its making, has the tragic-satiric bite one associates with Marker, Godard, or De Palma; it’s brilliant because it distills the movie’s theme to a single shot, and because it extends its implications. As the noble words ring in our ears, and the sham heroism of the landing is underscored, “Capricorn One” ceases for a moment to be a narrative entertainment, and becomes an essayistic interrogation of our values.

Unfortunately, when it is settling for narrative “Capricorn One” often founders.  Writer-director Peter Hyams may not have the formal instincts necessary to deliver a satisfying thriller. The various elements of the movie are disconnected, and the resulting messiness fogs the timeline — it’s often unclear how much time is intended to separate key events. Also, it’s problematic that the film’s sci-fi angle is abandoned, at which point it develops into a paranoid suspense piece in the very terrestrial mode of “The Parallax View.” (This is surely intentional, but would you blame a genre fan for griping?) As the rebellious astronauts, lost in a forbidding desert, attempt to evade the claws of a vengeful NASA, your interest in the plot might wane as you begin to forget what motivated it. It wasn’t until the movie ended that it occurred to me that the desert is intended as a ironic echo of the Mars that was never landed on. Hyams’ knack for coming up with unusual images (he’s deft at exploiting contrasts in depth and scale) and his surprisingly sophomoric wit are what hold your attention during this section. In particular, the hijinks involving a pair of government helicopters, sent to hunt the fugitives, are cunningly anthropomorphized in the manner of Steven Spielberg. The creepily deadpan machines nod to one another, execute double takes, nearly touch foreheads in sympathy; they’re the world’s most sinister comedy duo.

It’s odd that the screenplay, which protests the astronauts’ dehumanization, treats them so perfunctorily. Not only do the attempts to define them as individuals seem halfhearted, they’re overshadowed by peripheral characters, several of them portrayed by big-name stars. What’s more, the performances of the actors occupying the astronaut roles — James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson — fail to overcome the essentially functional role that Hyams assigns to them. (This isn’t entirely their fault: Simpson in particular is given almost nothing to do.) The result is a void at the center of the picture’s dramatic structure that grows larger as the story progresses. The plum role goes to Elliott Gould as a reporter who gradually uncovers the NASA trick. He has some dryly titillating scenes with Karen Black; these have the counter-culture spark that characterized the Hyams-Gould project “Busting,” made four years earlier. But Gould’s hip aloofness doesn’t map well to the crusading idealism of his character. Whereas in “The Long Goodbye” Altman used the incongruity of Gould’s Marlowe to great effect, the actor’s out-of-placeness here is damaging. You sense he’d rather be throwing back a highball with Black than battling the scourge of government corruption.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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