Quick Thoughts: Capricorn One (1977)
A trio of astronauts are pulled from their Mars mission at the very last moment.
I knew nothing about this movie as I went in. It starts so well. Three astronauts have trained for a missions to Mars. There are politicians, engineers and scientists, all with something to prove and redeem in themselves; they desperately need this mission to be a success not just for themselves, but for their nation and possibly the wider world. The mission is set, the countdown is about to begin and the astronauts are in their seats. The shuttle door is opened. An official urgently ushers the astronauts out with talk of an emergency and gets them on a plane. The plane takes off as the world, the astronauts’ wives included, watch the space shuttle successfully launch into space. It’s at this point that the astronauts are told that something went wrong: NASA paid for cheap parts and it turns out they don’t work; if they go into space with them, the astronauts will surely die. Without wanting to disappoint the nation, to kill the dreams of thousands, if not millions, yet, without wanting to see the astronauts die, the decision is made to fake everything. But, the truth can’t be kept; it will find a way of escaping.
This, I imagine, would be a relatively easy movie to pitch and sell. With focus and charisma, the high concept would basically sell itself. And this isn’t a cheap idea; it has numerous implications of pressing societal questions: can the general public handle the barefaced truth? How do you interact with a cynical and unforgiving society? Can a lie ever do good in the world? Is it possible to stop a white lie from snowballing into murderous conspiracy?
All of these questions are raised in the first forty-five minutes or so of this movie, but, the gears shift. Moving into the second half of the narrative we suddenly find ourselves in an action-thriller that, admittedly, builds up to a pretty awesome climax centred on a plane chase – so much of which seems like the stunt men involved had some major balls. However, this U-turn away from a concentrated, even philosophical, sci-fi picture, into a more basic action-thriller just doesn’t work very well. The two halves fail to speak to each other, in fact, they undermine the best each has to offer. If the entirety of the movie built from the first half it would be something near a masterpiece; if it built from the second half (and had a better cast), it would probably be considered a classic – a mixture of North By Northwest and All The President’s Men.
This then seems to be one of those movies that have been pretty much lost in film history for good reason. It’s neither entertaining enough, nor clever enough – nor is it really made to a high enough level – to last the test of time. The core problem with this movie is that it chooses to be made up of two conflicting halves, instead of one cohesive whole that, formally and conceptually, productively debates itself. In such, a balance should have been found between the action elements and the social commentary which would’ve allow this movie to provide nuanced answers to the initial questions it raises. Furthermore, it should have added greater complexity to its antagonists instead of reducing them to a plain, evil force; the debate between who is right and who is wrong should have lasted far longer.
There is then very little reason to see Capricorn One – it’s good, but not good enough to be of note. You may be able to have a good time with it, especially if you have a weak-spot for some 70s filmmaking, but, if you do see this movie, I think the lesson to be drawn out from it is that a debate within a script – within a screenwriter’s head – can provide a narrative with balance, nuance and complexity. That said, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts?
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