Story Pile: Capricorn One


The TV broadcast is rolling.

The silhouette of the rocket on the launching pad, the black shape created by the cresting sun.

The sound, from somewhere, to somewhere, about the countdowns, about the tanks being flooded, about the expectations of the mission. About the vast things humans have done, to make this happen, about how this is a first step on a months long path.

About this, the first crewed flight to Mars.

And then, someone taps on the side of the module where you’re sitting, and says: You need to get out. We need to talk.

Capricorn One (1978) is a conspiracy thriller movie about NASA trying to fake an extraterrestrial landing in order to avoid embarrassment and funding failures, and the escalation required to maintain a conspiracy that does not hold.

Set at some point in the 1980s, the plot starts out as a very straightforward sort of shuttle launch, with the technology you’d be able to estimate at the time. It is funny that they talk about using slide rules so much in this movie, when the movie itself was only a few years after the invention of the pocket calculator, which would eventually become a standardised industry tool for all these engineering challenges. Three astronauts are conscripted into a conspiracy to avoid admitting to an acquisitions failure that would close the space flight program, and the ensuing conspiracy takes place over months.

They fake footage of them landing on Mars; they fake broadcasts and telemetry from the spaceship; they pressure the astronauts with threats of their families, and even disappear people who leak information about the conspiracy. There’s a tension of what’s going to be revealed, how it’s all going to fail – and what measures are going to be taken to protect the secret.

This movie is really 1970s. It’s funny as a kid of the 90s seeing all these actors I very much recognise from their late-career fuck-around stage of things. I saw actors I knew from Law & Order, from the Big Lebowski, from The West Wing, from Ocean’s Eleven, from Rugrats, from Kojak, from Community, oh, and the most public murder trial in my entire life.

Yeah, OJ Simpson is in this!

It’s definitely a 1970s style thriller movie; like, this is a movie that despite being, ostensibly, about a conspiracy of movie sets and journalists pounding shoe leather and strange signs in complicated technology of that particular period of chunky computer systems, it still finds time to include a biplane chase and one of our heroes fighting a scorpion.

It is kind of neat the way that the men this story throws into a desert to survive and evade attention are astronauts, who were previously going to be heading to Mars for months in containment. That’s kinda fun and also kinda wild, where you get these three characters who you’d think would be selected for overwhelming mental strength and physical fortitude and endurance. Given the way the third act of the story goes, I’m honestly a little bummed about how little is made of the fact that the astronauts would be, largely, pretty terrifying dudes.

The central premise of the movie, though, is about NASA faking a planetary landing, with technology from the 1970s. In fact, if you’re at all interested in the kind of bullshit moon landing denialists believe in, there’s a lot of little nods to it – nods to the things they claim happened twenty years before the movie was set. Things like slowing down live footage to simulate lower gravity, the types of huge lights on the sound stage meant to maintain the illusion of sunlight on a planet with a different atmosphere, and things like the delay on the cameras and broadcasts all giving away their terrestrial origin.

It’s an interesting movie, because when you set aside that it’s about a mars landing, everything else it’s doing is pretty much about the moon landing. How do you disappear someone in a period where their name is in the physically printed phone book? When you don’t have nonsense space-age technology to create an illusion of reality for you, when you can’t just do live CGI on screens, what does it look like when you’re trying to fake the realities of a different part of the universe? It’s all really interesting stuff.

The other thing I like about this is who foils the conspiracy. Because conspiracies are fundamentally about controlling huge amounts of attention, about controlling what millions of people can see and believe. And you could, if you imagined it, control the attention of several million people if you were the only source of information they had. But there are so many other places people get information – and all it takes is one or two screwballs, one or two weirdoes, and you’ll suddenly have things you didn’t plan for or expect or couldn’t have considered pushing holes into your wall of silence.

In this movie, the final rescue of our heroic astronaut is done by a reporter renowned for believing stupid things, and a crop dusting pilot who seems to think everyone is a pervert. The clues that led them where they were include a drunken NASA engineer who said too much at the wrong time, and a woman whose dad was stationed at an old airfield. These are all things that you can’t keep under control. You can jigger with a satellite, you can lie to a news feed, but in the end, you can’t globally do a find-replace on a giant number of random nobodies.

The whole movie is on Youtube, by the way, and I don’t know how legally. Like I don’t think the movie’s rightholders are particularly aggressively protecting it, since it’s been up for years.

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