Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Capricorn One (1978)
Studio Line: Artisan - The mission was sham. The murders were real.

What if one of the greatest space adventures was really a hoax? The whole world is watching the first manned flight to Mars prepare. Suddenly, its astronauts are taken from the craft to an abandoned desert hanger where NASA's director tells them their life support systems have failed. Because of the mission's success is crucial to future space programs, he orders them to take part in a simulated Martian landing as cameras roll. If they refuse, their families will be harmed.

The phony flight goes well until an uninformed NASA technician spots a computer discrepency. He mentions it to a reporter friend who smells a story and starts to investigate. When their rocket disintegrates and the world thinks them dead, the astronauts realize their lives are in danger. They escape and separate- hoping one of them will survive to expose the sensational fraud.

Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black, Telly Savalas
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles Spanish; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 36 chapters; rated PG; 123 min.; $9.98; street date 2/7/98.
Supplements: Production Notes; Cast & Crew Information; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C+/D

Good old DVD - it helps fulfill those childhood dreams! Okay, it's a serious stretch to say that viewing Capricorn One has been a life-long fantasy of mine - if that were the case, why'd it take me 22 years to do so? Nonetheless, it's a movie that I wanted to see as a kid. For forgotten reasons, I never did so, and it's nice to finally get a look at it all these years later.

Was it worth the wait? Well, no, but I didn't expect it to be any sort of classic. C1 definitely isn't a great film, but it provided a moderately entertaining look at government deception.

The film came out in 1978 when the US still was dealing with the cynicism and deceit found in the Watergate affair. That factor is key to the existence and mild success of the movie, as it would have seemed out of place a few years later during the jingoistic Reagan years. However, the late Seventies was a perfect time to depict government cover-ups and general evil, and C1 makes for an interesting snapshot of that period.

C1 actually found its roots in the cult belief that the moon landings had been faked, and the film explores these possibilities. It shows a manned mission to Mars that has to be aborted because of a technical problem. However, because of the precarious funding position in which the film's NASA finds itself, the powers-that-be determine it would be more productive to fake a successful mission than suffer the setbacks caused by a real failure.

This part of the premise surprised me, for I'd always thought that the whole thing was always supposed to be a fake; the fact the staged landing substitutes for what should have been real dilutes some of the negative sentiment toward the government, as the affair would have seemed nastier if the whole project had always been a sham. This way we get a little more sympathy for some of the baddies - as represented by Hal Holbrook's mission director - and in a way, it seems less plausible; the conspiracy appears weaker when we learn the faking was a last ditch effort to save the program.

Of course, this phony mission doesn't sit too well with the three astronauts who were supposed to go to Mars. We have James Brolin as the rock-jawed, courageous leader, Sam Waterston as the wise-cracking buddy, and O.J. Simpson as... well, as the black one; they didn't bother to give the Juice much of a character. Much of the film documents their reactions to this little escapade, especially how they deal with telling the truth about it.

However, it turns out the astronauts aren't really the focal point of the movie. Instead, we see a lot more of Elliott Gould as a reporter who suspects something's up and who tries to get to the bottom of it. Essentially, he plays Woodward and Bernstein all wrapped into one, though his investigative skills don't seem awe-inspiring. It's odd to remember that Gould was quite a big star in his day, and that factor probably led to his role being dominant; there should have been a greater balance between Gould and the three astronauts - their character development is pretty woeful - but Gould gets the lion's share of the work. (Granted, his character doesn't grow or show us much either; the movie's much more concerned with the conspiracy than with its participants.)

With films like last year's End of Days and Timecop under his belt, director Peter Hyams long ago established his credentials as a serviceable but unspectacular director. He performs in a similar capacity here; nothing about his leadership aids the film, but he seems to do little to harm it either. Hyams' movies generally appear to seem to run on auto-pilot; they're so middle of the road that they look like anyone could have directed them.

Probably the only semi-standout part of C1 comes from the climax. I won't discuss it in depth because I don't want to ruin it, but Hyams stages a pretty exciting and fun sequence that ends the film on a strong note. Well, it almost does so; the movie's denouement was painful to watch, but the action that leads to it worked well.

Part of the reason for that - surprisingly - was due to a small turn by Telly Savalas. I always found him to be rather annoying, and he remains irritating here, but that quality helped the role, and Savalas makes his comic relief cameo very entertaining. Who woulda thunk it?

Overall, I liked Capricorn One to a modest degree. It provides a decent little conspiracy thriller that stands as a fairly middle of the road movie; as directed by Peter Hyams, it clearly could have been more exciting and compelling, but it also could have been worse. Plus, how can I dislike a movie that provides the sole joint venture between Gould and Brolin, the only two men on the planet who ever married Barbra Streisand? Even if I hated the movie, I wouldn't be able to bring myself to savage it; isn't that association with Babs punishment enough? (Talk about bad karma! What horrors did those guys inflict in past lives to deserve such a fate?)

The DVD:

Capricorn One appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. C1 represents the toughest kind of DVD for reviewers: one that provides tremendous inconsistencies in quality from start to finish. As such, it's difficult to draw a bead on the DVD, because virtually all of my statements come with strings attached.

Sharpness generally seems pretty good, with an image that usually appears reasonably well-defined. However, definite softness intrudes on occasion, which makes the picture seem less stable than it should. I noticed no examples of moiré effects or jagged edges. The print itself usually looks pretty clean, but quite a few flaws pop up throughout the movie; I noticed mild grain, scratches, hairs, nicks and speckles. The worst instances took place during some of the desert scenes, where there's some serious dirt and muck at the top of the frame for a few shots.

Colors often look accurate and well-saturated, but they can also seem bland and muddy at times; the shots on "Mars" never appear as solidly reddish as they should, and a few other instances seem flat. Black levels are acceptably deep and dark, and shadow detail usually appears appropriately heavy, although both can look rather murky at times. Overall, I found Capricorn One to seem pretty watchable, and at times it can look terrific. However, too many flaws interfere with the image for me to rate it higher than a "C+".

The same holds true for the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of C1. Easily the strongest aspect of this mix is its score by Jerry Goldsmith. Although it falters slightly at times, the music usually sounds bright and dynamic and it seems much clearer and sharper than I'd expect for a track of this vintage. The score provides some solid bass and packs a surprising punch as it cranks from the front speakers.

Much more problematic are the other aspects of the soundtrack. Dialogue seemed intelligible but could be rather flat and hollow. Speech also suffered from some serious distortion at times, such as when we hear politicians at the rocket launch. Similar distortion also mars the effects track, which seemed nicely spaced and integrated otherwise; the front channels dominate and provide some good use of the discrete speakers, even to the point of some solid panning between them. The surrounds stand out less in that regard, but they also rev up when more "spectacular" effects appear.

Unfortunately, I winced whenever the rears enter the equation because they contributed some of the track's worst distortion. Obviously these flaws also affect the forward channels, since I heard so much edginess in the dialogue, but they reach their nadir when effects came from the surrounds; those instances were painfully harsh and screechy. Thankfully, the rears don't get all that much usage, and the forward speakers offer a strong enough soundstage to make up for that fact, but the distortion still greatly affected my rating of the audio. Without the distortion, the soundtrack of C1 would have earned a solid "B"; for a 22-year-old movie, the rest of the mix works very well. However, the shrill quality heard on some of the sound forced me to knock my grade down to a mediocre "C+".

C1 tosses in a few supplemental features, but not much. We find a "teaser" trailer and a theatrical promo for the film plus two text sections. One of those provides sketchy but decent biographical information for Hyams and six of the actors; not surprisingly, Simpson's entry omits mention of his extracurricular activities. Finally, some brief but mildly interesting production notes can be found. It beats the proverbial kick in the head, but not by much.

Still, you can't top the price. Capricorn One offers a moderately compelling thriller that fits well in the mildly paranoid tenor of the times. Other than its terrific premise, nothing about the film stands out positively, but nothing seems especially weak, either, and the entire piece appears watchably entertaining. The DVD seems about average overall in regard to picture and sound, although it can be tremendously inconsistent in both areas, and it includes fairly minor extras. Nonetheless, when one considers the fact that Capricorn One lists for less than $10, the DVD becomes more appealing, especially when one considers it can be found for a few bucks less than that. At that price, I'd say the movie's well worth a look for anyone who thinks the subject interests them.

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