This ingenious thriller takes a popular conspiracy theory – did the Americans really land on the Moon or did they fake it in a TV studio? – and develops it a stage further.
Three astronauts – Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O J Simpson) – are about to be launched on the first manned mission to Mars, aboard the spacecraft Capricorn One.
But as the countdown reaches its final stages, the three men are escorted out of the capsule and whisked away as the (now unmanned) rocket blasts off into space. Before anyone can answer their questions they are flown out to a desert bunker, which it turns out is also a movie soundstage.
The head of the space program, Dr James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook), explains to the bewildered flyboys that the program didn’t have the “right stuff” – it had been discovered that the life support systems on the Capricorn One were faulty – and an aborted mission would have given Congress the excuse to scrap the program.
So instead the guys are asked to simulate the landing and go fake a walk on Mars in the studio on an elaborate film set, so the public can continue to believe in the American dream. After re-entry, the astronauts will be placed back in the ship and no one will know the difference.
When the guys are hesitant to take part in a hoax, the exasperated bureaucrat also mentions that if they don’t play ball their families will be killed. Meanwhile, Mission Control thinks everything is real, with recordings from run-throughs with the astronauts being broadcast back to Houston.
The three take part in the deception and as the world watches on TV, Capricorn One lands on the Red Planet and deep in the Arizona desert, three threatened astronauts plant the American flag on a film set, aware that their mission is a fake, a top-secret cover-up.
But when the empty Capricorn One burns up on re-entry they realise that the next part of the ruse has them dying – meaning they now need to escape.
Though they commandeer a jet, it runs out of fuel leaving them on the run in the Mojave Desert as they are stalked by black helicopters, picking them off. NASA will stop at nothing to keep the truth a secret.
Meanwhile, a pesky reporter, Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), gets clued in by a disgruntled NASA employee that something is wrong with the mission.
He starts to investigate but of course, his boss thinks he’s crazy. His NASA informant goes missing but the government are less successful at knocking off Caulfield.
In a very exciting scene, his brakes are dislodged from his car. But even after being set up with a drug sting, he doggedly follows his leads and gets closer and closer to the truth.
Eventually, with the help of a crop-dusting pilot (Telly Savalas), he’s able to rescue the last remaining astronaut, which will obviously prove the existence of a major cover-up and surely make a lot of heads roll.
Unfortunately, whenever the suspense and excitement start to build (which is often), the mood is broken by the wooden dialogue of director-writer Peter Hyams.
But the action (especially the chase scenes) is truly edge-of-the-seat stuff – Even if the chase sequence with two helicopters and a crop-dusting plane piloted by Savalas, is reminiscent of a similar encounter in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).
O J Simpson
Dr James Kelloway