Capricorn One review

Did Neil Armstrong take ‘one giant leap for mankind’ when he stepped onto the lunar surface or were the Apollo missions, as the conspiracy theorists would like us to believe, nothing but a ‘giant’ hoax? Using dubious scientific evidence, they first of all argued that a trip to the moon would have been impossible due to the effects of deadly cosmic radiation, before attacking the photographs from the lunar surface as clever fakes. But whether the moon missions were real or not, the public began to lose interest anyway, angry about the tremendous amount of money being spent on space exploration. 

This combination of conspiracy theory and overspending threatened the whole future of NASA funding and, coupled with the concept of budget cuts and safety issues, provided a useful plot device for the faking of a manned mission to Mars in the 1977 movie Capricorn One.

Seconds before launch three unsuspecting astronauts; Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), John Walker (O.J. Simpson) and Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), are taken from their Saturn 5 space capsule to an abandoned air force base in the middle of the desert. Here Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) explains that compromises on safety would have resulted in the astronauts’ deaths if they’d stayed onboard, but as NASA couldn’t afford to cancel the mission it was decided to fake it instead. Kelloway then escorts them to a nearby hangar in which a sinister government agency (read CIA) has skilfully recreated a portion of the Martian surface complete with a reddish sky backdrop and mock-up landing craft.

At first the captive astronauts refuse to go along with the charade, but a threat against their families quickly persuades them otherwise. Keeping up the pretence for months on end, they are then horrified to discover that their ultimate survival poses a threat to national security, when the returning space capsule unexpectedly burns up on re-entry.

Meanwhile, investigative reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) is convinced that there’s been a cover up in regard to the Mars shot after a friend who works at Mission Control in Houston mysteriously disappears. Following a series of vital clues leads Caulfield to the desert and a daring rescue mission in the company of an eccentric crop dusting pilot played by Telly Savalas.

Gould’s character displays just the right amount of wise cracking cynicism as he struggles to unearth the truth, while Savalas chews up the scenery with a memorable gung-ho performance. Of the three astronauts, Waterston and Simpson’s characters are merely background to the central plot involving Brolin and his wife (Brenda Vaccaro). Brolin is excellent in the part, whether hiding from government forces, dealing with rattlesnakes or questioning the rights and wrongs of the mission.

Written and directed by Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010 and The Relic), the pace never lets up and the climactic aerial chase between a vintage bi-plane and two ominous-looking government helicopters is nothing short of breathtaking.

Picture: While it’s good to see this movie re-released for a whole new audience, the Blu-ray picture quality varies from scene to scene and doesn't make particularly huge strides over the version that appeared on regular DVD a few years back. The opening sequence at the launch site is reasonably sharp (Chapter 2), but there’s tremendous grain noticeable elsewhere. The confrontation between Kelloway and the three astronauts on the Mars set is quite soft, while clarity in the desert scene when the camera pulls back as Sam Waterston reaches the top of the cliff face (Chapter 9) suffers from poor resolution. There are also one or two momentary freeze frames (Chapter 12) and a strange coloured blocking effect on the opening shot of the Saturn 5 (Chapter 2 - see screenshot below). In fairness, these could be anomalies with the review copy we were sent, but it should be noted that there has been no remastering of the print for this Blu-ray release.
Picture: 2/5

Audio: Much like the picture, the LPCM 2.0 audio is not in any way remarkable. Sound effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s catchy score aside, voices sound shrill and distorted at times, especially noticeable in the opening scene when the astronauts first board the space capsule (chapter 2) and later during the discussions at the deserted airbase (chapter 3).
Audio: 3/5

Extras: There’s nothing new on this disc that wasn’t included on the original DVD release. The seven minute documentary What if… The Making of Capricorn One is a promotional piece that accompanied the movies theatrical release. It does however contain some interesting interview snippets with members of the cast. On Set with Capricorn One is raw behind the scenes footage that’s broken up into two sections; 40 minutes of desert filming with Brolin, Gould and Savalas, and a mere four minutes on the Mars set with the principal actors. The footage is pretty scratched, washed out and unedited. Also included is a theatrical trailer and image gallery.
Extras rating: 2/5

We say: A well-made, well-acted, rollercoaster ride of a thriller. It’s just a pity that the transfer lets it down somewhat on Blu-ray.

Capricorn One, Network, Region B BD, £15 Approx
HCC rating 3/5