Now that Hollywood is rooting around the Seventies for something else to remake, it's no surprise that they've taken an interest in this one. Good thrillers are hard to come by and Capricorn One is the mother of conspiracy theories, aching for a firm hand to force it into the paranoid Noughties. All Peter Hyams' film lacks is a charismatic leading man to play the investigative journalist and a tough minded editor to tighten loose screws and eradicate the slack from tension lines.

The politics of space travel has lost its sex appeal. The euphoria of the moon landings has evaporated and Congress is complaining about cost. The President, whose ear is seldom far from Capitol Hill, is beginning to lower the temperature on his public support for infinity and beyond, just at the moment when NASA is preparing to send three men to Mars.

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The control centre at Houston is abuzz (pre-Lightyear), as the countdown counts down. You notice a less frenetic, more calming atmosphere than in Apollo 13. People are smoking, for heaven's sake, on the job! What next? Well, what next is quite a surprise. Minutes before lift off, the astronauts are escorted out of the capsule and flown to a secret location in the desert, where a Mars landing site has been prepared beforehand. You can guess the rest.

The motive for subterfuge it is not because the boffins have lost faith in the feasibility of the expedition. They discovered a malfunction in the life support system two weeks before the launch and didn't have time to repair or replace it. Rather than handing a propaganda goody bag to the nay-sayers in Congress by postponing the mission, Dr Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) takes the decision to go ahead and fake it ("We can't afford to screw up"), relying on his silky smooth powers of persuasion, coupled with guarded threats, to bring the astronauts on side.

The film suffers from age. Hyams' direction feels goosey loose; scenes go on too long. All it needs is sharpening the pace and giving the script an infusion of snap-crackle dialogue. Elliott Gould, as the maverick reporter, is laughable. This guy should be at the centre of the film, like a PI on a politically sensitive case (The Parallax View anyone?), not some bumbling oaf who follows his nose, if he can find it, and lucks out.

Despite flaws that in hindsight appear obvious, it's a great story and Holbrook, especially, is terrific. There's a surprisingly entertaining cameo from Telly Savalas as the owner of a two-bit crop dusting business. It remains a memorable movie of the period that should not be picked to pieces by smarty pants students of film, but rewritten and remade with Matt Damon and Adrien Brody, directed by Paul (The Bourne Supremacy) Greengrass.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2005
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The first manned mission to Mars may not be entirely what it seems.
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Director: Peter Hyams

Writer: Peter Hyams

Starring: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O J Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black, Telly Savalas

Year: 1978

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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