Capricorn One – great sci-fi moments number six

CAPRICORN One is a film that I don’t own on DVD, but if I happen across it on TV I find it impossible not to watch.

Thrilling conspiracy theory nuts everywhere, its premise has a team of astronauts forced to take part in a fake Mission to Mars by threats against their families (one of the astronauts was OJ Simpson, so he would have taken some real convincing), as NASA budget cuts mean their ship’s life support would not keep them alive.

They film pretend broadcasts from a set on an isolated military base, but when the spaceship burns up on the way back home just as they were on their way to meet it, they realise they have to fight for their lives and try to reach civilisation, at the same time as journalist Elliot Gould tries to expose the truth.

Truly a child of its time, with America still recovering from the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam in 1978 when it was made, it boasts a great cast and exciting storytelling from director Peter Hyams, all of which can be summed up by the phrase don’t trust the man. (and don’t look too closely at the script, which has more holes in it than a faulty heat shield. A LEM on Mars anyone?)

However my sci-fi moment is not Elliot Gould or Telly Savalas’s performances, enjoyable as they are, or the sense of creeping paranoia that pervades the movie, or even twinkly-eyed Hal Holbrook doing that avuncular but ruthless monster thing he made a career out of.

Instead it involves Sam Waterston, who plays one of the astronauts, happy go lucky Peter Willis. (Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen the film)

As part of his escape attempt, he has a long scene where he climbs a huge cliff, typically telling himself a joke as he goes.

It seems to go on forever, with Willis nearly falling but clinging on and painfully inching ever upwards through sheer willpower, each line of the joke a gasp for air until …… he reaches the top and finds the faceless soldiers, who had been waiting there while he climbed, to kill him.

All he has left is to say the bitter sweet punchline before Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), escaping in another direction, sees the flare go off that signals his friend has been caught and killed.

On the face of it, Brolin is the movie’s hero and Gould also has the flashier role, while OJ Simpson was then still an all-American football hero.

But Waterston’s nuanced performance made me care for his character more than the others and I was really hoping he would be the one to make it.

Les Posen descibes the scene as an emotional highlight in his blog and I would agree 100%.

Every time I watch the film, that is the moment I watch most closely and remember most strongly.

Overall this film is a guilty pleasure, but Waterston’s moment briefly elevates it into something much more real. Will the remake be able to do the same?

One thought on “Capricorn One – great sci-fi moments number six

  • Craig


    Chilling classic!

    I put it in the same category as The Manchurian Candidate. That is; Conspiracies that could happen it if the US Government went rogue and there is nothing we could do about . Scary stuff.

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