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A funny thing happened on the way to Mars.

Capricorn One
(1977)

(SPOILERS) As far as ultimate conspiracy theories go, ones that have captured the zeitgeist and simultaneously the opprobrium of any who view talk of such sinister intrigues and machinations as conclusive evidence of tin foil hat-wearing detachment from a reality in which we are always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the Moon landings are in the top tier, jostling with JFK for primacy. Certainly, there are far more people willing to admit to doubts over the official account of the assassination of President Kennedy than whether the trio of Apollo 11 astronauts actually touched down on the lunar surface. Yet the faked Moon landings theory is by no means a new one. It wasn’t born from the post-The X-Files popularisation of conspiracy theories; it merely gained greater acknowledgement and corresponding derision.


There was a groundswell of disbelief from the first and, less than a decade later (referenced in the period “Making of” Capricorn One documentary short), 28% of the American public affirmed their belief that the US did not put a man on the Moon. It’s little wonder then, that someone would get around to making a fictionalised account of the truth behind this purportedly fictional recent history. That someone was writer-director-cinematographer journeyman auteur (not often those latter two words collide) Peter Hyams, and the result, Capricorn One, occupies not dissimilar “alluded to” territory as the JFK-by-another-name Winter Kills. Capricorn relates man’s first mission to Mars, rather than the Moon, but otherwise attempts to engage with the “Just how would they accomplish it if they did accomplish it?” scenario. The picture’s only real problem in that regard is that you have to go beyond the “success” story of 1969 for dramatic effect; following after a vibrant first half, the movie slowly falls to pieces. In an entertaining – at times so ludicrously entertaining its impossible to resist its nerve – fashion, but one that punctures any serious intent behind the project.


Not for Hyams the bleak impossibility of battling nefarious and enigmatic powers-that-be seen in The Parallax View, released only four years earlier. Capricorn One was made during, and came out just following, the bright new dawn of Star Wars. George Lucas’ movie heralded a glittering era of false optimism and triumphant merchandising, where the old myths could be re-embraced and heroism and victory over the forces of darkness were possible. Subconsciously or not, or maybe just because it’s a Lew Grade production, Capricorn One attaches itself to those coattails, having spent the previous 90 minutes establishing the hopeless might of the system and its capacity to delude and destroy us. A Telly Savalas-ex machina, if you will.


Any broaching of the subject of a notional Moon landing(s) conspiracy is not only divisive, it’s often positively combative; the conversation quickly descends into cheap insults and aggressive posturing, as one party refuses to entertain the other’s partial evidence. For such unknowables, I tend to find the Robert Anton Wilson approach of healthy scepticism and moderate openness to either argument the more promising tack. It’s not as if we should doubt that governments lie to us, that they have lied to us, and that they continue to lie to us. That doesn’t mean that they always lie to us, just that some sort of moral imperative doesn’t guide them; the adage about power corrupting conquers any concerns over rectitude. The Moon landings conspiracy, like 9/11, is a particularly push-button conspiracy theory, however; in both cases, the implications, if it were discovered we had been hoodwinked, would shatter the foundations of the order that currently martials us all. Our paradigm would be forever shifted.


It would be unfeasible to attempt a précis of the debate on the component parts of the Moon landings conspiracy here, the pros and the cons that could, and do, fill whole websites of discussion. Besides, while Oliver Stone’s JFK engaged with the nuts and bolts of the different theories about the JFK assassination, Hyams is only really interested in the most surface of conversations about the technical obstacles of both getting to another planet (or moon) and staging a mass deception. It’s the idea that holds the power and, as with much of his work, he introduces his subject with considerable verve but somewhere along the line runs out of the steam that would carry it into greatness.


Hyams’ interest in the subject stemmed from his time working in TV news, and observing the cuts to simulations from McDonnell Douglas when reporting on anything astronautical. He realised this was as a “one-camera story”; “… if you could screw with the camera, you could screw with the story”. Underpinning this was the jaded, post-JFK assassination, disillusion with our elected representatives and their capacity for honesty; the understanding that, just as his parents believed everything in the newspapers, Hyams’ generation swallowed all that was announced on the goggle-box. This was the germ of Capricorn One but one should be wary of concluding that, because he ran with a wild idea, Hyams also endorsed it. Interviewed last year, the director framed his own thoughts on duping the American public, and the world, in no uncertain terms; “It’s absolutely absurd”. For those interested in a recent contribution to the Moon landings debate, try Phil Kouts’ Is There Any Hope for a Moon Base?


That Capricorn One sat on a shelf for three or four years after it was written is perhaps unsurprising, given how forgotten the director’s prior pictures are. Anyone recall his first feature, with Elliot Gould (Busting)? His 1940s private eye picture with Michael Caine (Peeper)? Hyams had been writing his own scripts from his feature debut (not Peeper, though, and he didn’t direct Telefon or The Hunter, McQueen’s final picture) and is credited as cinematographer from the time of 2010 (Bill Butler lensed Capricorn One; he also contributed to the same year’s memorable Demon Seed). Multi-hyphenates tend to be more auspiciously recognised than Hyams. Few would call him a hack, but he does tend to get lumped in with the likes of John Badham as a second-rate safe pair of hands; the studio goes to him when someone else hasn’t panned out. And anyone familiar with his later career (he was 35 when he directed Capricorn One, but by the time he was 50 he was pretty much a gun-for-hire) would be forgiven for assuming he really is just a hack. The guy they gave End of Days to when the first choice (Marcus Nispel, and what a great career he’s had!) was nixed.  The guy who ended up directing a succession of Van Damme movies (three, as well as lensing the Muscles from Brussels on his son’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration). Still it could have been worse; it could have been Seagal.


But, post-Capricorn One and until the end of the ‘80s, Hyams was riding on a relative high. He blipped with a post-Star Wars “work-as-much-as-you-can-because-you-might-not-work-again” Harrison Ford in Hanover Street. Then came Outland (not a huge hit, but laudable for pulling off a convincing post-Alien milieu and casting a resurgent Sean Connery), The Star Chamber (a neat, semi-forgotten secret society conspiracy thriller with Michael Douglas), 2010 (Hyams dared to sequelise Kubrick; of course, he didn’t come close, but there’s some undeniably masterful sequences in there), Running Scared (Billy Crystal as a cop!), The Presidio (Connery again and, alas, Mark Harmon) and Narrow Margin (remake of the 1952 B-movie with Gene Hackman; an underrated little thriller). None of these are classics, but the science fiction pictures in particular have much to offer.


Lew Grade’s ITC funded Capricorn one, a patchy outfit when it came to feature work, with the renowned nadir of Raise the Titanic only a few years away (at least Heaven’s Gate could lay claim to artistic merit, for all the profligacy involved). Grade recognised the post-Watergate appeal of the conspiracy yarn, and, with a keen eye on TV audiences and sales, dictated Savalas as the crop-dusting pilot; still starring in Kojak at the time, his scenes were completed in one day.


Hyams lifts off with the astronauts, Brubaker (James Brolin), Willis (Sam Waterston) and Walker (O.J. Simpson) preparing to board their rocket for the first manned mission to Mars. Hyams will ensure we keep time with nine-month “expedition” (a conservative estimate of how long it would take, it seems) with  JAN 4” appearing over a black screen, and similar subtitles identifying its stages.  Capricorn Control lists the astronauts’ breakfasts and an eager technician offers Brubaker, ”I’d just like you to know, all I’ve ever worked for has meaning today”. He then gives Brubaker a Bible, emphasising the hokey all-American hold the Moon landings exert. 


However, even before the astronauts are escorted from the launchpad and transported to a disused desert air force base, we have encountered a pervading cynicism sweeping across the whole affair. This is a world where, seven years on from Apollo 11 (although the time frame of Capricorn One is unspecified), landing on other planets, even planets previously unvisited, is old news. The President can’t make lift-off, busy as he is with other matters “like getting re-elected”. Congressman Hollis Peaker (David Huddleston) is nonplussed that his vested interests are being ignored (I admit, I didn’t picked up that he is the owner of Con-Amalgamate, the company that provided the life support system for the mission), while the Vice President (James Karen) delivers the stark verdict on why the space programme is no longer a priority (and, as we shall see with Kelloway’s speech, a legitimate reason for the subsequent decline of the real space race):


Vice President Price: Hollis, there are a number of people who feel that we have problems right here on Earth that merit our attention before we spend billions of dollars on outer space.

Indeed, even the adoring technician has commented on the $4bn price tag of the Mars expedition. It’s when Hal Holbrook’s Dr Kelloway, the NASA man in charge, arrives to address the decamped astronauts that the total perspective is offered. It’s a wonderfully juicy monologue, and Holbrook (who was indelible as Deep Throat in the previous year’s All the President’s Men) delivers it with just the right air of calculated zeal. Kelloway runs the gamut from ingratiating himself with the crew and chocolate box memories of their careers together (in particular Brubaker; “Captain Terrific and the Mad Doctor”???!!), before setting himself and NASA up as the victims of public apathy and a short-sighted Washington. The programme has gone from crowds gathering to watch Glen’s first orbit of the Earth and tears when Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface to complete indifference.


Kelloway: You know, when Apollo 17 landed on the Moon, people were calling up the networks and bitching because reruns of I Love Lucy were cancelled. Reruns, for Christ’s sake! I could understand if it was the new Lucy show. After all, what’s a walk on the Moon? But reruns! Oh, geez! And then everybody starts talking about how much everything cost, for Christ’s sake? Was it really worth 20 billion to go to another planet? What about cancer? What about he slums? How much does it cost? How much does any dream cost, for Christ’s sake?

It’s a masterfully couched speech, summoning the spirit of ‘60s idealism to justify the ultimate cynicism of lying to the nation. After all, it isn’t NASA’s fault; it’s the evil corporations who supplied a faulty life support system (a neat precursor to the privatisation of all things public, and the company politics that inform first Alien and then Hyams’ Outland; ethics and morals are of negligible value when the bottom line is on the table). Con-Amalgamate made “a little too much profit”, and the astronauts would be dead after three weeks in space. It’s clear here that, while Hyams is riffing on the conspiracy theory, he presents it as one where all concerned has a venture to Mars as feasible; Kelloway has had two months to lash up his fiction after things went pear-shaped. As such there is none of the over-arching pre-planning required by the Moon theorists. One might argue Hyams doesn’t need to go there anyway; the analogy is clear in the succinct reference to the life support system. Anyone planning to go beyond Earth’s orbit and into deep space or other bodies would soon snuff it.


Asked by Brubaker who knows about the plot, Kelloway responds, “Almost no one”, which is about as much of a riposte one can hope for to those who find it inconceivable that an alleged charade on the scale of Apollo 11 would go undetected for all these years. It’s humorous to note that Hyams, who would go onto make a second chapter to Kubrick’s most revered picture, is dipping his toes in a pond that ties that reclusive director into one of most intriguing of Moon legends; that it was Kubrick himself who directed the Moon footage (the upcoming Moonwalkers with Ron Perlman and Rupert Grint offers a comedic spin on this) and it’s notable that Hyams originally had a more satirical (Strangelove-ian?) approach in mind for Capricorn One (the often hilarious dialogue is perhaps the one surviving sign of this). Kelloway’s “Well, I don’t know” in response to Brubaker’s “You don’t think you’re really going to get away with this?” is a near- meta-aside to the idea that we could have swallowed such a whopper.


Kelloway presents himself as the man with no choice, although he quickly becomes the guy who will do anything, including murder, in the name of his cause. First he threatens the astronauts’ families, and then plans a nasty end for the trio when unforeseen developments cramp his plans (the fault that develops on the heat shield, destroying the returning craft on re-entry). Holbrook plays against Kelloway’s more single-minded goals; he is able to rationalise his actions, which makes him all the more chilling, and Hyams is able to interject the scene in which he visits with Brubaker’s wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) and persuade her to attend the memorial service. Another actor would have played up unequivocal duplicity, but Holbrook emphasises the unease of betrayal. When he says, “I feel like Jack the Ripper for even asking” you know that, as calculated as the comment is, it’s partially true.


Kelloway: There are people out there, forces out there, who have a lot to lose. They’re grownups. It’s gotten too big. It’s in the hands of grownups.

Kelloway’s excuse, that his back’s against the wall, invokes non-specific higher forces, although Capricorn One ultimately nurtures the more typical Hollywood conspiracy narrative; the localised, factionalised element which, once closed down, enables order to be restored (see also Enemy of the State). Kelloway certainly has significant resources at his disposal, however, if we’re to believe it is entirely down to him. Unspecified agencies manifest at his whim; they replace irksome employees who ask too many questions (Robert Waldon’s Elliot) with cover story impostors who claim no knowledge of him, attempt to murder an investigative reporter Caulfield (Elliot Gould) and despatch black helicopters (conspiracy, and especially UFO, lore’s ominous signifier of the most covert and subversive strands of government) to recapture our escapee astronauts. Despite Kelloway’s protestations, the multipliers suggest quite a number of people are in on this deal, wittingly or just following orders. It’s these logistics that foster a character like Elliot; if there’s a chance of discovery then surely some bright spark somewhere, not in on the deal, will unravel it and need to be silenced?


Arguably, the developments that overtake Kelloway suggest he’d have been better off not bothering in the first place. When the fault develops and the astronauts “die”, this isn’t an Apollo 13 tale where, against-the-odds, a beleaguered crew refurbish themselves as heroes; it’s a Challenger-esque affair that puts the very programme Kelloway is attempting to save in doubt; “You tell me. I ask you, I ask all of you here. How could we best serve these men? By giving up on their dream? By saying that it was all for nothing? You give me the answer.”


The potential for disaster is, of course, one of the explanations some give for faked footage (rather than there necessarily being no landings for reasons of practical impossibility, it was a safeguard against failure).  Other theories go in an entirely different direction; there were Moon landings, but they had to be faked because we already knew there were aliens on the Moon (and there are even transmissions confirming the fact). Still more arcane versions have it that there is a fully conversant space programme, far more advanced than anything we plebs are privy to; Mars bases are meat-and-potatoes reality and have been for decades (this links in to the Alternative 3 hypothesis, based on the fake documentary broadcast in 1977 that only provoked counter-charges of plausibility when its makers came out and said it was all a hoax). The further one goes down the rabbit hole of any given grand conspiracy, the less likely one is to stumble across certitude, unless one indiscriminately latches onto one pet theory.


Brubaker: If the only way to keep something alive is to become everything I hate, I don’t know if it’s worth keeping it alive.

The moral dilemma of the lie enforced on the trio, compliance under pain of threat to their loved ones, would be a believable enough stick to wield. One of the popular reasonings for poster boy John Glen doing the rounds while Neil Armstrong kept a low profile is that the latter was never comfortable with espousing the deceit. Hyams gives good (often great) dialogue for the most part, but nothing can save the schmaltz of Kay telling hubby of her son’s school essay where he announces “He is doing something for everybody to live a better life”. What self-respecting dad wouldn’t drop a coded message about the truth after such an emotional assault?


Walter: Listen to me and listen good. I don't like you, Caulfield. You're ambitious. You think the way to get ahead is to come up with the scoop of the century. Woodward and Bernstein were good reporters, that's how they did it. Not by telling me they've located Patty Hearst three times like you did or that brilliant piece of investigative journalism you pulled off by finding an eye witness to the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination The small fact that the man had been in a mental institution at the time never deterred you, not 'Scoop' Caulfield. Now, most reporters are like me. They are plodders. They spend a lot of their time checking little things... like facts. They cover mundane stories like wars and trials and hearings. You never seem to have enough time in your busy schedule to stoop so low as to cover a story. You occupy your time with tips from people who never existed. Driving your car into water and claiming it wasn't your fault. Getting shot at by unseen gunmen.

The parallel plotline Capricorn One presents us with is as extinct as the space programme itself; the bastion that is investigative journalism. Crumpled – as ever – Elliot Gould weaves his way to the truth, blessed with enormous luck in the leads that land in his lap; his is the path of guesswork and good old-fashioned being in the right place at the right time. It’s hardly surprising that his long-suffering editor Walter (David Doyle) calls him out for not being the real deal. Walter’s tirade against Caulfield is the comic flipside to Kelloway’s defence of his actions. It’s an effective takedown of conspiracy journalism, except of course that everything Walter says is wrong. Well, except Caulfield’s historical duff leads. But Caulfield works on hunches, and this hunch is the right one. Walter’s world would never stray upon a story (Capricorn One’s is a world where the MSM is not told what to say down to the letter, so it’s possible for the truth to be told about a fake Mars landing – always assuming the freeze frame happy ending isn’t a ruse, and there’s an immediate news blackout on any of reporting of what transpires at the memorial service).


Hyams plays with quick-fire sparky dialogue in the Caulfield scenes, whether with Walter, colleague Judy (Karen Black – “Go jump yourself”), or even Kay. So we see Caulfield pleading for 48 hours because he saw it in a movie, and Walter gives him half of that (“I saw the movie too, it was 24”). This scene is an effective means of taking in the gamut of popular conspiracy lore, from the exception-that-proves-the-rule Watergate sleuths (leading some cynics to the conclusion that, for Watergate to have run, Nixon’s demise must have been sanctioned from the true powers behind the throne) to the unbeatable second shooter.


Kay: You haven found what you’re looking for. You’re embarrassed about bothering me again. However, there are one or two questions more you’d like to ask me. It’s something personal, and you won’t bother me anymore.
Caulfied: I haven’t found what I’m looking for. I feel embarrassed about bothering you again. However, there are one or two more questions I’d like to ask you. It’s something personal, and I won’t bother you anymore.

For anyone unfamiliar with his late career resurgence in supporting roles, it’s hard to countenance how iconic Elliot Gould was throughout the ‘70s. From M*A*S*H onwards, Gould represented the quick-witted whip-smart anti-hero. The guy who was antithesis of the macho heartthrob, equally suited to comedies, relationship dramas, and offbeat thrillers. By the time he made Capricorn One he could simply show up and be Elliot Gould, relying on presence alone. The end of the decade saw his career as a star pretty much vanish overnight, however. Gould didn’t stop working during the next two decades, but you’d be hard-pressed to cite a great movie role (or Friends aside, a memorable television one). Soderbergh put him back on the map with Ocean’s Eleven but, to a lesser extent admittedly, like his M*A*S*H co-star Donald Sutherland, Gould’s most vibrant immortal period is found in the ‘70s.


Caulfield’s presence is closer to an upbeat version of Warren Beatty’s character in The Parallax View than anything approximating All the President’s Men. He’s subject to repeated attempts on his life (his brakes are messed with, he is shot at on the set of a western town), but only then do his aggressors decide to frame him (haven’t they got that the wrong way round?) It might have been interesting to attempt the picture solely from the astronauts’ point of view, but it would have been narratively more problematic and much more austere in tone.


Caulfield, and Gould, keeps things lively and light. “Can I have one more guess?” he asks Savalas’ Albain in response to which of “A&A” the crop-dusting pilot is. His exchanges with Judy are almost Howard Hawksian, just with more vulgarity, and his interplay with Kay is also surprisingly witty. Which almost makes up for the clumsy feeding of Caulfield clues. It’s surely enough for him to discover that Brubaker and his family went to Flat Rock, not Yosemite, the year before (Brubaker references this when speaking to his wife “en route home”), suggestive of a deception he wants recognised. The subsequent viewing of a home movie and the exchange regarding a movie hubby saw being filmed adds very little other than over-enunciating the clues (“He couldn’t get over how something so fake could look so real. He kept on saying with that kind of technology you could convince people of almost anything” – really, almost like… a Moon landing?!) and the filler scene in which Caulfield visits the aforementioned location.


Brubaker: In the name of all peoples of the Earth, I take this step in the journey of peace for all mankind. We hope our visit will increase the understanding of the human race.

The lot of the astronauts in Capricorn One can’t compare once they are on the outside. It’s actually an interesting choice by Hyams not to show the crew between their incarceration and the faked Mars landing (131 days later). And again between that point and their contact with their families (they don’t appear to have done very much on Mars either, apart from depositing a foot there). But it also reduces them to near-cyphers; we aren’t interiorised on their experiences. The positive side is that it allows Hyams to emphasise the lapse of time., and there’s only so much they could say (which is why, when we see Brubaker again, he is still debating the morality of his decision). It may be significant then, that given their functional status, Hyams pulls off one of the movie’s defining visual during their “expedition”. It’s the pièce de résistance of the picture, informing its essence; the slow pull back of Mars lander to reveal the studio lights, the set, and the hangar beyond, to the accompaniment of voiceover oozing irony as it proclaims “Now you, the men of Capricorn One, have shown us how wonderful we can be, by showing us how high we can reach”. It sets in perspective the walls that would come tumbling down if the Moon landings were publicly proclaimed fake; such an illusion must be maintained, no matter how pervasive the doubt.


Brubaker: If anyone ever sees us again, the whole thing falls apart.

There are other nice touches during this part of the picture; the constant surveillance the trio are under as they plot possible responses, the hand hovering to cut the feed as Brubaker appears to be veering off script. Hyams emphasises the sense of a watertight operation. So his failing is all the more glaring when, realising their cards are up, the astronauts decide to escape the base… and do so with consummate ease. There are no guards at their door, only one standing guard of a handy waiting jet. The sequence informs the downward spiral of credibility the picture takes once they are loose. Nevertheless, their desert adventure offers some rewards. Brubaker goes all survivalist, exhibiting the wherewithal to conceal himself beneath the sand as helicopters fly by (he’s like Arnie in Predator!) His later encounter with a snake (followed by a brush with a scorpion; everything’s against him!) is less compelling, his decision to reluctantly eat it bordering on parody. Elsewhere, Walker is apprehended in double-quick time while Willis gets to tell a long-winded joke as he exhaustedly scales a tricky cliff face (“She’s on the roof!”). The real punchline to his joke is perfectly acidic, however; he reaches the summit only to find black helicopters already waiting; Hyams’ pull back aerial shot is almost as perfect as the one in the hangar.


Willis: Here we are, millions of miles from Earth, and we can still send out for pizza.

It says something about the movie making times (there was no compunction to dot every “I” and cross every “T” narratively, to wrap everything up in a palatable bow), or perhaps just the disregard with which Hyams holds his characters, that we never learn whether Willis and Walker were executed as soon as they were re-apprehended. O.J.’s presence now stands out for reasons of obvious infamy, but also because he really isn’t very good. It’s just as well he has minimal dialogue. Waterston, in contrast, all but steals the picture with his cavalcade of quips and one-liners. He breaks up the solemnity of talking to his family from space with “I told you never to call me here!” and responds to his wife’s “You sound so close. It’s really hard for me to believe you’re so far away in space” with “It’s hard for me to believe it too”. Later he tells jokes about their doomed aircraft (“I told you never to take a trip without checking the tank”) and giving enemas to elephants. He is also prized with one of the most memorable screen exits in the aforementioned mountaineering monologue. Waterson, unlike most of his co-stars, went on to some of his most memorable work during the 1980s, including The Killing Fields and a couple of Woody Allen pictures.


Brolin is the ostensible lead (although his Mr Streisand is trumped by Elliot Gould’s ex-Mr Streisand in both screen presence and engaging plotlines), but he has made a career from never quite being a star; perhaps his sudden departure from Westworld set the stage for a career in which, like Gould, he’d pretty much disappear after the end of the decade (his biggest hit, The Amytville Horror, came in ’79), with only a cameo in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to mark out the ‘80s. Now of course, he’s just known as Josh Brolin’s dad.


15 minutes from the end of Capricorn One, and with no ostensible way of resolving matters, who should rock up but Telly Savalas (Hyams had wanted Donald Pleasance). It’s the ultimate scene-stealing part, in that it’s not only very funny (“And I think you’re a pervert!” he accuses Caulfield; everyone’s a pervert!) but also utterly preposterous.  Just what Caulfield expects to find out in the desert is anyone’s guess but he finds it anyway, asking Albain to tail the black helicopters and then giving Brubaker a timely ride (the astronaut tops the tide of unlikely developments, eluding his captors by leaping through a window and hightailing it to Albain’s waiting biplane). It’s exuberantly, irresistibly, nutty nonsense, and complemented by some stunning aerial footage. But it also underlines that this isn’t really at all a serious-minded conspiracy movie, in spite of the cogent reasoning of failing public support, economics, politics and big business that lead to the events. Top that off with the slow motion arrival at the memorial service (it must have been a really long service for Caulfield and Brubaker to get there before the end) and you’re left thinking “This definitely never happened to Beatty”.


Moon landing conspiracy lore is now so embedded in the mass consciousness, it no longer needs to be banished to the fringes; just so long as it is referenced in humorous tones or loaded documentary “investigations” that systematically debunk such crazy talk, all may be seen to be well. The recent revival of Arrested Development had little Ronny Howard, he of Apollo 13, lampooning his most fêted movie as he sits in the “actual” Apollo 11 capsule that was used to film the “actual” landings in a TV studio. There hasn’t always been such self-conscious playfulness. Michael Stipe set his paean to Andy Kaufman, Man in the Moon, amid a world of grand illusions where, if you think they put a man on the moon then “nothing is cool”. And yet, only two years after the landings, Diamonds are Forever featured Connery’s Bond happening across a studio set of a staged moonwalk before making his escape across the (yes) desert in a very silly lunar buggy. As Vacarro observed in the 1977 on-set documentary, “Initially, when they did step on the Moon, there were lots of people who said that was not true. We just don’t know what to think any more”.


It stands as one of those now baffling ironies that Capricorn One actually received technical assistance from NASA (including use of a prototype lander). Producer Paul Lazarus had a cordial relationship with a space agency employee from Futureworld, who gave him the good ahead; had Hyams’ vision reached the ears of his superiors it would no doubt have been nixed.


After all, the picture announces, “At a time when cynicism was a national epidemic, they gave us something to believe in”, which isn’t far from summing up the national landscape of the Moon landings. Capricorn One was released in the US in the summer of 1978 (it opened in Japan at the end of ’77), moved back from February to fill the gap created by Superman’s problematic production. It wouldn’t arrive in the UK until the beginning of 1978 (this was an era when Star Wars could open in Britain seven months after its Stateside debut). The movie was reportedly a reasonably sized hit, but this type of science fiction was on the way out. The formidably budgeted blockbuster (or ultra-cheap imitation) was soon to be the order of the day. Grounded sci-fi, along with the conspiracy movie generally, was headed for the backburner for the time being. The flipside of Capricorn One’s gleeful dubiety is The Right Stuff’s eulogy for the archetype of the American hero. The latter is a classic, achieving what it sets out to do with consummate skill. One wouldn’t label it facile, however; infectiously optimistic would be a better expression.  Capricorn One lacks the serious-minded follow-through of its conspiratorial predecessors (and also the archness of satirical takes like The President’s Analyst) so cannot summon their resonance in the final analysis. Many of Hyams’ better pictures set out their store with panache but then run out of ideas; Capricorn One doesn’t quite fit that bill since it brings in a completely leftfield one. It’s highly entertaining, but detours into a borderline narrative-non-sequitur.










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Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…