Peter Hyams’ loopy conspiracy thriller has the American government faking a Mars landing to score political points, a storyline so ’70s it almost hurts. The outrageous concept is rich with visual and narrative potential, only some of which writer-director Hyams mines in his entertaining but inconsistent narrative. The main problem with the movie is also its main contrivance: After participating in the hoax, three astronauts learn that the government expects them to crash during their spaceship’s staged return to terra firma, because they’ve got to disappear for real in order to sell the illusion. Quick question No. 1: If the astronauts can’t be trusted, then how can the dozens of technicians involved in mounting the conspiracy be trusted? Quick question No. 2: How does a crash landing give the government the PR win they’re seeking by staging a fake Mars landing in the first place? Don’t look for answers, because logic takes a backseat to pulpy fun as plot twists slam into place so quickly they cause cinematic whiplash. The bits depicting the actual fabrication of the Mars landing are colorful, but oddly enough a long sequence of leading man James Brolin trapped in the deserts of the American Southwest is more vivid. Hal Holbrook shines as the main conspirator, delivering an epic monologue toward the beginning of the picture that lays out the particulars of the plot; with his mesmerizing scowl and lilting voice, Holbrook’s one of the few actors who can make that many minutes of unbroken speech compelling. Elliot Gould plays a combination Woodward and Bernstein as the intrepid reporter who tracks the case, doing his amiable bumbling-schnook routine, and the endangered astronauts at the heart of the story are portrayed by a truly eclectic trio: Brolin, O.J. Simpson, and Sam Waterston. They’re so mismatched that they represent of sliding scale of American acting, from Simpson’s cheerful incompetence to Brolin’s vapid professionalism to Waterston’s earnest skillfulness. Ace character players James B. Sikking and Robert Walden are in the mix too, as is Telly Savalas in a gonzo cameo that adds gleeful absurdity to the climax.
Capricorn One: GROOVY