Just after the “Mars landing,” the camera pulls back from a close-up of the glare of the astronaut’s helmet, so we can see the lander, casting an odd shadow against the Martian sky, and then the stage lights and a crew member of the set. It would have been a great reveal shot, except Capricorn One has already informed us that the event belongs in quotation marks.

Perhaps the most influential bearer of bringing the moon landing hoax conspiracies into the relative mainstream, the movie tells the tale of a faked expedition to Mars by NASA, which has been watching its ratings drop after the moon started to bore people who wrote to complain that I Love Lucy reruns were canceled.

Just as NASA is about to launch the three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterson, and O.J. Simpson) in a very Apollo-looking rocket, they are spirited away to a confined room in a remote warehouse in the middle of the desert. Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook), their friend and mentor, informs them that the life support system was a failure, but that the mission will go on as planned. The module will run on auto-pilot, the voices Houston hears will be prerecorded from training, and the three will record the “landing” for live broadcast, with slow-motion editing used to replicate the decrease in gravity.

They go along with it, not so much because of Kelloway’s inspirational pep talk about carrying out a nation’s dream, but because he informs them that “people” will kill their families if they don’t.

Writer/director Peter Hyams, fueled by Watergate-inspired cynicism, casts intrepid but gullible journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) as the investigative hero, targeted by the shadowy group for execution, tampering with his car, sending him flying off a bridge and into the water. In spite of their ability to convince the world of the landing and to delete the existence of a NASA technician who questions the timing of the astronauts’ transmissions, these conspirators let Caulfield run around investigating and interrogating the wife of one of the astronauts (Brenda Vaccaro).

The movie is one of peaks and valleys. After the intrigue of the scheme fizzles, Hyams throws in another complication in the form of a failed heat shield on the unmanned craft, leading the trio of astronauts to realize they’re dead to the world. That turns into a survivalist story in the desert, with Simpson’s Walker seeing mirages, Waterson’s smart-ass Willis cracking jokes to himself while climbing a mountain (before the last joke is pulled on him), and Brolin’s Brubaker encountering a rattlesnake and a scorpion.

As these escapades and Caulfield’s almost comic hunt for the truth (he has to contend with an outspoken editor (a very funny David Doyle), flirt with his co-worker (Karen Black), and put up with an antagonistic crop duster (Telly Savalas)), the original setup is nixed, leading to a generic cat-and-mouse.

The movie ends on a high note with a kinetic, low-altitude chase between a plane and two helicopters, but one can only wonder how Capricorn One ends up in a plane/helicopter chase after the paranoid fantasy of its initial premise.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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