Shortly after we put a man on the moon, a conspiracy theory emerged that it never really happened, that the whole thing was filmed in the Arizona desert. Say what you will about conspiracy theories, they can make the basis of some pretty good movies. Capricorn One is just such an example. Instead of the moon, the plot of this movie consists of an effort to fake a manned mission to Mars. It seems that Congress is ready to cut NASA’s budget at the first opportunity, and when it turns out that the planned mission would fail, certain bigwigs at NASA decide to fake the Mars mission to keep that from happening.
Reluctantly, the three astronauts go along with the hoax, because the conspirators have threatened to kill their families if they don’t. Elliot Whitter (Robert Walden), a technician at mission control, figures out that the television signals are really coming from somewhere on Earth, about three hundred miles away. He tells his superiors, but as they are in on the conspiracy, they tell him not to worry about it, but it is clear that they are worried about him. He tells his friend Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) about the signals one night over a game of pool. Just then, Caulfield is called to the telephone, which allows some henchmen to spirit Whitter away.
Subsequently, the computer simulation of a spaceship returning from Mars shows that the module lost its heat shield on its return to Earth, which would mean the death of the three astronauts. They realize that the conspirators will try to kill them to cover things up. They escape and steal the jet that took them to their isolated location. However, they run out of fuel and have to land in the middle of a desert. When they get out of the jet, one of them delivers the greatest line of the movie: “It looks like we’re on Mars.” The rest of the movie is about Caulfield’s attempt to figure out what is going on and the astronauts’ attempt to escape, until the two stories merge when Caulfield saves the only surviving astronaut, Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), the two of them blowing the conspiracy wide open when they show up at Brubaker’s funeral.
As good as this movie is, it has the two unfortunate and unnecessary flaws that plague most conspiracy theory movies: there are too many conspirators, and they overdo their efforts to control what happens. In this movie, when Whitter disappears, Caulfield goes to his apartment, which he has been to many times before over the years. When he arrives, there is a woman pretending that she is the occupant of the apartment and that she knows nothing about Whitter. The apartment has been completely redecorated and refurnished, and there are stacks of magazines addressed to this woman.
This is totally absurd. The simplest thing to do would be to just let Caulfield go to the apartment and find that no one is home. Sure, he could report his friend’s disappearance to Missing Persons, but people go missing all the time. There would have been no need to include that woman as part of the conspiracy, not to mention all the people needed to completely renovate the apartment. Oh, and the people in the leasing office are part of the conspiracy too, because they show him rental receipts from her for over a year. And the personnel department at NASA is in on it too, because they say they have no record of Whitter ever working there, and they have never heard of him.
By letting Caulfield knock on the door and find that no one is home, nothing would have been lost but the absurdity. He could still have continued to investigate based on Whitter’s remark at the pool table. Moreover, the woman in the apartment claiming to be the tenant and the scrubbed records in the personnel department at NASA only confirm that something insidious is going on, thereby guaranteeing that Caulfield will start investigating; whereas if Whitter had merely disappeared, Caulfield might have shrugged the whole thing off.
During the time that Caulfield was at Whitter’s apartment, the conspirators were busy sabotaging his automobile. Said sabotage consisted of causing his car to suddenly accelerate after he is on the road for a while. When this happens, the brakes fail, the gearshift disengages, and the ignition switch comes loose. Boy, did those mechanics work fast! Miraculously, Caulfield survives when his car gets to a raised drawbridge, causing him to plunge into the river.
Now, there must be easier ways to assassinate a pesky reporter than by sabotaging his car. I would have shot him with a silencer when he entered Whitter’s apartment and just left the body there. Maybe Whitter would have been blamed for the murder. In any event, if they were going to kill Caulfield anyway, what was the point of the elaborate charade with the woman in the apartment, the leasing office, and the personnel department?
But why kill Caulfield at all? In fact, why kill Whitter? If the conspirators had managed to successfully kill the three astronauts, the signals Whitter was concerned about could have been dismissed as a computer malfunction. And if he persisted with his story, most people would laugh him off as some goofball who is into conspiracy theories.
I said that there was an easier way to get rid of a pesky reporter, and that is by shooting him. That apparently occurs to the conspirators too. Brubaker tried to give his wife (Brenda Vaccaro) a secret message while pretending to be on his way back to Earth, indirectly referring to a town called Flatrock, which features a movie set for making Westerns. In other words, it is fake, just like the Mars landing. When Caulfield drives out to Flatrock, the conspirators, who apparently followed him, try to shoot him. Now, the place looks deserted, so the conspirators could have just walked up to him and put a bullet in his brain and then driven off without any witnesses, but they fire a couple of shots at him from a distance and then drive off without finishing the job.
But we’re not through. Now some Drug Enforcement Agents that are also in on the conspiracy plant some cocaine in Caulfield’s apartment and arrest him for possession. I guess they figured that since they couldn’t kill him they would settle for locking him up. Of course, he gets out on bond, but I suppose they didn’t count on that.
All right, so this movie is not realistic, if by “realistic” we mean the sort of thing that could actually happen. But it is realistic in the sense that it matches the outlandish imaginings of people that espouse conspiracy theories, such as the one that we faked the moon landing.