Posts Tagged ‘James Brolin’

Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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It has become axiomatic that SF movies purporting to depict the future usually end up saying more about the time in which they were made – the fears and preoccupations that were prevalent at the time. To be honest, many of these don’t seem to have changed much down the decade: every generation seems worried about machinery going out of control, the threat of disaster and invasion, the dehumanising effect of technology – but every now and then you do come across something a bit more left-field. Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld is fuelled by a healthy dollop of techno-fear, but something which really marks it out as the product of its time is the presumption that, even in the future, the myth of the old west would still loom large in the American popular psyche.

Nearly forty years on, and the release of a major western is a newsworthy event – they’re just not made any more, at least not in anything like the quantities they once were. Westerns have been largely supplanted, ironically enough, by SF and fantasy. If you were to make a movie about popular fantasies these days, it would probably have to be called something like Tolkienworld, Zombieworld, or (even more ironically) Futureworld.

This does not stop Westworld being a classic movie, however. Set in the near future, the main characters are square-jawed alpha-male John Blane (James Brolin, looking uncannily like Christian Bale from some angles) and his rather less self-assured friend Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin). To help Martin get over a traumatic divorce, Blane is taking him to Delos, the world’s most advanced theme park. The three zones of the park recreate different historical periods in exacting detail, where the guests can live out their every fantasy.

Blane and Martin are visiting Westworld, the old west zone. Here there are robot horses to ride, robot townsfolk to interact with, robot prostitutes to – ah, you get the gist – and robot bad guys to gun down. Rather wonderfully, chief amongst these is a robot modelled after Yul Brynner’s character from The Magnificent Seven, who is therefore played (brilliantly) by Brynner himself, surely one of the most deft and inspired post-modern touches in mainstream cinema. However, while the two men enjoy their holiday, concerns are mounting behind the scenes at the park. For no apparent reason, the massively complex systems are slowly going out of the control of the technicians, and it’s only a matter of time before the fantasies the guests have paid for are being played out in deadly earnest…

Westworld is really a film in two parts. The first hour or so sets up the scenario and lays the foundations for the climax, and to be honest in the past I always found this section to be a little slow and lacking in focus. That said, watching it again, I can appreciate what a good job it does in establishing the characters of the two leads, and how many genuinely eerie moments it contains (for instance, Martin is disporting himself with a robotic prostitute, and – without him noticing – her eyes snap open to reveal a dead, metallic stare, even in the throes of simulated passion). It also says some interesting things, for those prepared to look for them – about how new technology is almost always initially employed to satisfy the most basic human desires (just cruise around the internet for a while and you’ll see what I mean), and about the unpleasant side of human nature generally: everyone at Delos is there to have their ‘dream holiday’, which for most of them seems to involve acts of violence, murder, and no-strings sex, all perpetrated upon the helpless park robots.

The techies at Delos can’t figure out why the breakdown rate at the park is inexorably increasing, but the film implies that the machines have acquired some form of unintended sentience and are gradually rebelling against their lot. This is slightly different from the usual ‘evil machines go on the offensive’ plot familiar from films like The Forbin Project or Demon Seed: it’s still a cautionary tale, but here the warning is not that technology itself is wrong, but the way in which we sometimes take it for granted. (It’s interesting to compare Westworld with its close relation Jurassic Park – another, rather similar Crichton story – in which the anti-technological message seems a bit more simplistic to me.)  Given the way most of the guests behave, one is almost inclined to start cheering the much-abused robots on as things go out of control in earnest in the final section of the film.

However, Richard Benjamin does such a good job of making Martin a likable, three-dimensional human being that you keep rooting for him to the end. There’s a moment when it suddenly dawns on him that the park has become ‘real’ and Brynner’s Gunslinger not only wants to kill him but is fully capable of doing it, and he carries it off without saying a word, just using his face and eyes.

From this point we’re into the climax of the film, which is a very different kind of animal, as Martin is relentlessly pursued by the Gunslinger around the park. This part was clearly a massive influence on the making of the original Terminator, but in some ways surpasses that film, partly due to its sheer simplicity, but also due to the quality of Yul Brynner’s performance. Brynner’s hardly in the film for the first hour or so, but he’s the making of the rest of it. Playing a killer robot double of yourself is not, you would have thought, the most engaging or demanding role, but Brynner appears to have completely invested himself in the part. SF cinema of the 70s and 80s is stuffed with people playing androids, robots, and other synthetic people, but few of them come anywhere close to Brynner in Westworld. Somehow he manages to drain all the humanity out of his performance, giving every movement and word a dulled, automatic quality. As a simple act of mime it’s remarkable: there’s a sequence near the end in which, accompanied by an unforgettably harsh and repetitive music cue, the camera follows Brynner as he stalks after Benjamin’s character – and it is like looking at a machine, Brynner’s movements are so mechanically precise and unvarying themselves.

And yet, even after all this, Brynner is still able to invest the Gunslinger with pathos as it tries to complete its objective even after being damaged. It’s a bit unexpected when this happens, given what has come before, but again Brynner is able to sell it. The film walks a fine line between keeping the audience sympathetic to Martin, and making them think the humans are getting what they deserve, but does so with notable success.

Westworld impresses me much more now than it did when I first saw it as a teenager. Back then I was rather dismissive of everything but the final chase, but looking at it again now I can see that this is a film with as many ideas and as much to say for itself as many other more intellectually celebrated SF movies. Good direction and terrific lead performances don’t hurt either. As usual with well-remembered old movies, we are threatened with a remake: but, again as usual, I really can’t see there being any point. This is a classic in the true sense of the word.

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