No matter how you slice it, Capricorn One stands alone in the cinematic sci-fi canon. Even if you aren’t among the moon landing conspiracy theory enthusiasts or don’t think that NASA is a front for some kind of nefarious black budget secret space program, Capricorn One is an outstanding sci-fi action/drama that, at minimum, asks you to question your assumptions about NASA’s goals and Hollywood’s role in amplifying them for the masses. Capricorn One touches on one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time by telling a story about a faked NASA mission to Mars. Once the astronauts learn the truth, they must confront some big ethical questions over the consequences of revealing the truth to the world. And outrun some black helicopters in the process.
As the film opens, we see the sun rise behind the Capricorn One rocket as the various operators at mission control go through their pre-launch protocols. After sharing his heartfelt gratitude for fulfilling his life dream, a NASA technician gives his Bible to Astronaut Brubaker as a token of appreciation. Astronauts Brubaker, Willis and Watson board the command module and begin their system checks. As mission control begins the countdown, a government agent without a NASA uniform opens the command module hatch and instructs them to exit. Dumbstruck by this turn of events, they comply. The crew are shuttled off to a secure location while the nation watches the unmanned rocket launch with rapt pride.
Meanwhile, David Huddleston’s NASA Director Hollis Peaker has a conversation with Vice President Price over the importance of continued funding for the space program. It has the air of formality but Peaker’s words carry an aura of veiled threats. As Dr. James Kelloway, the brilliant Hal Holbrook has the thankless task of revealing to the crew that the Wizard of Oz behind NASA is in fact a phony and they were expected to play along with the charade.
Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, director Peter Hyams manages to accomplish things you simply won’t see in any contemporary Hollywood NASA portrait. Rather than portraying an intrepid band of mathematicians and scientists, we’re given a NASA that’s a massive front agency perpetrating a mass deception. Instead of bold idealists pushing back against a tidal wave of cynicism and pressure from above, we’re given government bureaucrats acting like extortionists and con artists. In place of a symphonic chorus of national pride, we’re being shown an elaborate matrix of noble lies that are swallowed with gusto. This isn’t the collection of rag tag scientific heroes feverishly scribbling out telemetry calculations that you’ll see in Apollo 13, The Martian, Interstellar or Hidden Figures. This is the film that asks you to consider the possibility that you drank the KoolAid.
While it may not make everyone a full blown moon landing truther, the film suggests that the space program, and the entire sci-fi genre by extension, serve as an all purpose secular teleology. The mythos of space travel carries both links to our past and the hopes for our future. Whether it’s Star Trek’s dreams of boundless scientific progress, post-scarcity plenitude and intergalactic multicultural cooperation or the possibility of the earth joining together in a grand scientific enterprise as portrayed in Contact. Between Independence Day’s global rallying cry to ward off alien invaders or the creation myth of panspermia found in Prometheus, there can be little doubt that the mythology of space in all its forms serves as a sort of de facto secular religion.
Was Capricorn One the film where Hollywood tipped its hand? I can’t say for sure, but when you consider all of the space themed films leading up to the first Apollo moon mission and Disney’s involvement in promoting the space program, it’s not completely unreasonable to ask a few questions. In contrast to the numerous films leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, was Capricorn One just a more honest piece of predictive programming? The film adaptation of The Martian came out in 2015, and both SpaceX and Trump have announced plans for a mission to Mars. Stories of UFO sightings and black budget programs have also ramped up in the media.
Then there’s the esoteric symbolism of Capricorn and Mars. Capricorn is associated with the planet Saturn and by extension, time, chaos and death. By contrast, Mars symbolizes war, strength and masculinity. Is Hyams revealing a long-term agenda by dramtizing the alchemical union of Capricorn with Mars? Or is it simply a reference to Saturn the demiurge and the secret ruler of this world? Or is the connection to the symbolism of the goat and Pan a veiled reference to NASA’s occult origins? All of the above?
The colossal irony of casting OJ Simpson as Astronaut John Walker only adds to the film’s poignancy. Hollywood is very much in the business of constructing myths and shaping perception. Subsequently, their collective obsession with racial #DIVERSITY has gone off the charts in recent years. Both The Martian and Hidden Figures were over the top about black representation in the space program. After all, what really matters is we fight stereotypes and ensure that any #MARGINALIZED group is represented in a completely positive light and real world outcomes will be the natural result. Back then, Simpson was a beloved black celebrity and if one were to take the case that this film is a giant reveal of the Hollywood/NASA conspiracy, one could easily imagine central casting reaching for the guy who best represented black achievement in America. The Juice. Talk about going meta.
The world of conspiracy theory and entertainment have long coexisted in the popular sphere. As is the case with Capricorn One, it gets repackaged and sold as its own entertainment thereby neutralizing and diluting any underlying truth claims in the public consciousness. “Conspiracy theorist” doesn’t carry the same weight as “racist” or “white supremacist” in the cultural lexicon, but in the hierarchy of epithets, it’s a close runner-up. Oliver Stone may have made a good JFK assassination conspiracy potpourri, but who really takes seriously these basement dwelling freaks spewing about the Illuminati plot for the coming New World Order? And perhaps that’s the point. People already consider the Jesse Venturas and Alex Joneses of the world unhinged nutters. You can dismiss these people because they’re conspiracy theorists. But the public likes a good conspiracy theory when it’s repackaged as The X-Files or a 007 film. It seems that Hollywood’s job is to continue to blur the line between reality and fiction so you can never really be certain of anything. And that’s why you can watch Capricorn One in the comfort of your home and then shake off all those crazy questions because “it’s just a movie”. Right?