Sunday, May 17, 2015

Conspiracy thriller meets Irwin Allen meets His Girl Friday

I saw the oddest and most wonderful hybrid movie on Friday night, a movie whose description sounds so unusual that you'd think it must be working on the level of kitsch. Nope, Peter Hyams' 1978 Capricorn One is a genuine, straightforward film with nary a wink to it -- and it's damned entertaining.

What makes it so unusual is that not only is it such a determined and counterintuitive mix of genres, but it also stars an unlikely mix of major celebrities -- the more they sound like they should be a guest star on The Love Boat, the better.

Let's get the high concept plot out of the way:

Three astronauts are being sent on humanity's first mission to Mars. Minutes before they're about to leave aboard the eponymous rocket, a strange man in a suit calls them out of the cockpit and demands that they come with him, but that there's no time to explain. Reluctantly, the astronauts follow, and soon find themselves aboard a private jet to a remote location. Meanwhile, the countdown is still going and the rest of the world believes they are watching three astronauts launch into space. The astronauts arrive in a remote airplane hanger that's decked out to look like the surface of Mars. It turns out their trip is going to be faked. At the 11th hour, tests revealed that the life support systems for the astronauts would fail after only three weeks, so instead of losing face (and losing the funding Congress has threatened to withdraw from NASA) by canceling the expedition, the astronauts will be compelled to cooperate with a hoax. However, when something goes wrong aboard the actual ship ...

I'll leave off with an ellipses right there, since there's much more to be discovered about where this movie goes, which takes it even further afield from the already unusual mash-up of two genres (movies about the space program and conspiracy theory movies). The movie also has a delicious relationship to the real world, because it addresses rather pointedly the theory that the moon landing might have been faked ten years earlier.

But wait, we haven't even gotten to the cast yet.

And to do it justice, we need to list the names like they did in the ads for those Irwin Allen disaster movies, complete with a picture of each actor, preferably turning toward the camera when their name is called and smiling.

"And starring ...

"James Brolin, as the brave captain of Capricorn One!

"Sam Waterston, as fellow astronaut Peter Willis!

"Elliott Gould, as intrepid reporter Robert Caulfield!

"Hal Holbrook, as the shifty NASA operative!

"James Karen, as the vice president!

"With special guest appearances by ...

"Telly Savalas, as the grumpy crop duster pilot!

"And O.J. Simpson, as astronaut John Walker!"

Simpson is actually more a star than a guest star, but as the oddest name on the list -- especially today -- he gets final billing.

Beyond Simpson, many other of these actors probably seem more unusual today than they did at the time. We think of James Brolin as the guy who married Barbra Streisand in 1998, and Sam Waterston as the guy who starred on several hundred seasons of Law and Order. (Savalas had already been Kojak.) Still, this is a rogue's gallery, isn't it?

But I still haven't told you the funniest part.

There's a part of this movie that so clearly resembles His Girl Friday, with the high-speed banter between a journalist and his estranged ex and a journalist and his editor, that not only did I think of it at the time I was watching, but the review I read afterward made reference to its "rapid-fire dialogue worthy of a Howard Hawks comedy."

As one final enticement: This movie contains possibly the two most ominous helicopters in movie history, which behave more like insidious sentient beings than aircraft.

So you've, like, got to see this movie, right?

The answer is yes. Yes you do.


Nick Prigge said...

I've seen it! I've seen it! Years and years ago. On TV, I think, though maybe I'm mis-remembering. I enjoyed the heck out of it.

I also love this observation: "which behave more like insidious sentient beings than aircraft." That is so true. That scene at the end when Elliott Gould is in the gas station and you KNOW those helicopters are about to appear in the distance...

Derek Armstrong said...

Yeah, isn't it fabulous? I heard about it on a podcast a few months back, and was surprised I had never crossed paths with it. So then when I saw it at the library I felt like I'd found a treasure. And the timing couldn't have been any better, because the next night our BluRay's remote control broke. When my wife tried to watch it a couple days later, she couldn't, because it was one of those rare titles that can't be played from the home screen unless you have a remote.

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