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Mars simul
Researchers today simulate Mars exploration on Earth as preparation for future missions to Mars; a movie remake will ask just how realistic such simulations can be. (credit: Haughton Mars Project)

Little red lies

Hollywood is remaking Capricorn One. The original writer and director of the 1978 movie, Peter Hyams, is apparently producing the remake. Peter Buchman, who wrote Jurassic Park III (the one with the pterodactyls and William H. Macy) and the screenplay for Eragon, is signed on as the writer, and the movie will be directed by David Dobkin, who directed Shanghai Knights and Wedding Crashers. The project is currently called Capricorn Two and is being produced for Regency Films, with shooting scheduled to begin later this year.

The original film is what Hollywood calls high concept, meaning that the story can be summarized in less than a sentence. In this case, it is faked Mars landing.

This is actually the second attempt at a remake of the 1978 movie. In the late 1990s a TV movie version of Capricorn One was being negotiated, but the project never progressed very far. It is not surprising that Hyams is trying to remake the movie. Remakes are common these days for several reasons, primarily the fact that Hollywood is short on new ideas. Plus, the original story is actually pretty good, even if the movie failed to live up to its promise. Capricorn One is not exactly a classic, but it does have some great ideas, great scenes, and a great bombastic score by Jerry Goldsmith, best known for his Star Trek theme. Unfortunately, Buchman and Dobkin do not have much pedigree, which is a shame because a good script in the hands of a truly skilled director could be outstanding fun. However, one can hope that they could make the kind of movie that lives up to the promise of the initial idea.

The original film is what Hollywood calls high concept, meaning that the story can be summarized in less than a sentence. In this case, it is faked Mars landing. The story starts with the launch of the first human mission to Mars. While three astronauts are on the pad before liftoff, a NASA official shows up and hurriedly pulls them out of the capsule. The rocket leaves without them. He explains to the men that the spacecraft had a fatal flaw that would kill them shortly into the mission. NASA has decided to fake the mission instead in order to preserve its funding, but it is clear that even larger forces—big government and big industry—are also involved. The men are taken to a secret facility in the desert and forced to fake the flight. If they refuse, their families will be killed. They cooperate for the many months it takes to conduct the mission—a period that is skipped over quickly in the film.

Meanwhile, a crusading television reporter stumbles upon aspects of the hoax. He investigates and gradually becomes convinced that something nefarious is happening. What then happens is probably the cleverest part of the film—just before the astronauts are to return to Earth, the heat shield on their unmanned spacecraft fails and it is destroyed. This was not planned, because the entire point of the hoax was to avoid embarrassment, not cause it. The government conspiracy now has to eliminate the astronauts. They escape into the desert and government agents pursue them, eliminating first one, then another, until finally only the mission commander remains. While he is using all of his desert survival skills to stay alive, the crusading reporter has gone looking for him in a rickety biplane. The movie then reaches a climax with a thrilling aerial chase scene, with the biplane being pursued by two Army helicopters with machine guns. Of course the hero survives and returns to his family, arriving at his own funeral.

Capricorn One is the kind of movie that can only be fully appreciated if you consider the period that it was made, most notably in the years following both Vietnam and Watergate. Peter Hyams had worked as a reporter in Vietnam, where he became convinced that the government could conceal a great big lie if top officials wanted to do so. After all, Nixon had waged his “secret war” in Cambodia. Later revelations, such as the Church and Pike congressional investigations that revealed CIA plots to overthrow governments and kill Castro with exploding cigars and poisoned wetsuits, only added to anti-government paranoia. The movie reflects not only distrust of government, but also features the crusading reporter as hero; All the President’s Men, about Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, had already been a hit movie two years earlier. Hyams later went on to produce the disappointing “sequel” to 2001: A Space Odyssey, known simply as 2010. That movie also featured a government conspiracy which ultimately proved to be the cause of the HAL 9000 computer’s murderous mental breakdown.

The concept of the government faking a space mission was not new at the time and in fact was as old as the Moon missions themselves. During the Apollo 11 mission the New York Times reported that there were already people claiming that the mission was being faked. The first book alleging a Moon landing hoax was self-published in 1974. Hyams took these themes and combined them to produce a movie in the same mold as The Conversation and several other films of that period: the paranoid thriller.

Capricorn One certainly has its flaws as a movie. The film is slow for its first half. It spends too much time on the sleuthing reporter, played by Elliot Gould, and not enough on the heroic astronauts. Gould was always better suited to comedy than drama. As one critic put it, Gould’s character was dope-fogged, bemused, post-masculine, and self-righteous, putting-it-to-the-man: an antihero, but a lame one. O.J. Simpson had a minor role as America’s first black astronaut, but the best that can be said of his performance is that it is short enough that he does not embarrass himself. Critics of the film often take issue with Telly Savalas as the irascible biplane pilot, but for his relatively brief appearance, Savalas shows more zest for his role than any other character in the film and arguably comes close to stealing the movie.

Capricorn One is the kind of movie that can only be fully appreciated if you consider the period that it was made, most notably in the years following both Vietnam and Watergate.

If there are any great performances in the movie, it’s the helicopters. The final chase scene through desert canyons and over mountains is just the capstone. By that point the two dark helicopters have become the film’s heavies. We never see the helicopter pilots’ faces or hear their voices. Instead, the two insectoid machines seem to communicate with each other via telepathy and the pilots are only appendages. It was probably Hyams’ best visual idea in the film. A year later Apocalypse Now would turn the helicopter into a movie icon, but Hyams was the first director to recognize that the helicopter could be malevolent.

As far as telling a technically believable story, Capricorn One fell flat. The film used Apollo hardware for the Mars mission, which saved money but was not at all realistic. The details of the fakery are also hard to accept. One of the film’s more visually dramatic shots is a picture of the Mars surface with the astronaut stepping off the landing craft. The camera pulls backward slowly to reveal that it is simply a movie stage. It’s a great shot, but the idea of faking a space mission then was absurd, especially for a Mars mission. As the astronauts spent months flying to the red planet they would have beamed back hours of video. How would NASA fake the weightlessness? And the mission would have been supported by thousands of people who would figure out that something was amiss. Could all of them be part of the conspiracy? Yes, governments can get thousands of people to keep big secrets—witness the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office that operates dozens of spacecraft in secrecy. However, massive secrecy really only works if it is based on either a strong sense of honor, patriotism, and national security—or fear. Why would thousands of people agree to fake a space mission? Why wouldn’t any of them talk?

Now that Capricorn One is being remade, it will inevitably lend fuel to the crackpots who argue that NASA faked the Moon landings. Certainly some people will go see the remake and determine that, yes, the Moon landings were probably hoaxes. Several polls have indicated that perhaps 6% or more of the American population believes that the Moon landings were faked, and some polls imply either that the numbers are much higher, or that they are growing, particularly among young people.

But should we be all that concerned about this? A certain percentage of the American population will always believe nonsensical things, such as that horoscopes are real, the CIA killed Kennedy, aliens crashed at Roswell, or that Adam Sandler is a comedic genius. Does it matter more that some people believe the Moon landings were faked than it does that a much larger percentage of the population believes that the Earth is only 6,000 years old? After all, the fundamental problem is illogic, not whatever dumb thing that people believe.

While Capricorn Two may increase the percentage of people who believe that the Moon landings were faked, the greater threat is simply time. Very few people believed the Moon landings were faked when they were actually occurring, and if Americans return to the Moon (currently on schedule for, uh, thirteen years from now…), the percentage of disbelievers will undoubtedly drop.

Does it matter more that some people believe the Moon landings were faked than it does that a much larger percentage of the population believes that the Earth is only 6,000 years old?

Hopefully, the remake will substantially alter the story and the pacing of the original, devoting more time to the astronauts’ flight from their captors and less time on the sleuthing to uncover the conspiracy. Crusading reporters out to expose government lies today probably face a greater threat from bloodthirsty conservative bloggers defending the White House than they do from the government, so the new version will probably have to pick a different kind of hero. But if the film chose a blogger as its hero, would that make it more entertaining or realistic? After all, the Internet is already filled with kooks and weirdoes who believe ridiculous things—such as that NASA faked the Moon landings.

On the other hand, in some ways technology now makes the concept of a faked space mission more believable. We are clearly only a few years away from the time when human beings can be realistically simulated entirely by computer graphics. This is, after all, George Lucas’ ultimate filmmaking goal. A director would no longer have to suspend actors on wires to simulate weightlessness, but could do this all with a computer. The time delay for a mission to Mars actually makes it easier to fake the conversations between astronauts and ground control. Throw in a plot point about communications difficulties during the mission, and it would be possible to construct a reasonably believable scenario whereby the mission is faked not on a soundstage, but in a special effects company.

Which raises an interesting question: why not simply cancel the Vision for Space Exploration and hire Industrial Light and Magic instead? George Lucas, your country needs you…