Saturday 24 March 2012

Capricorn One

A wise man once said that sometimes the expectation of seeing a helicopter explode in a film is just as rewarding as the moment itself. Such was the case when I sat through 70’s conspiracy thriller Capricorn One (1978), recently.

Set in a kind of 70’s alternate reality where the US is engaged in a space race to get a man (or men) on Mars, we’re drawn into a world of subterfuge and conspiracy as they attempt to fake the landing and subsequently prevent anyone from finding out.

The motive for faking the mission comes after an oversight by NASA boffins leaves the shuttle’s life-support system ill-equipped to, well, support any life. Rendering it just a “system”, I suppose.

So as not to lose face in front of the pen pushers in Congress by postponing the mission, Dr Kelloway (played to perfection by Hal Holbrook) decides to fake the mission.

His plan is to send an empty shuttle into space and rely on his snake-like powers of persuasion and a couple of guarded threats to bring our reluctant astronauts on side - played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson.

After that, all the astronauts need to do is enact the actual Mars landing on a specially constructed sound-stage somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert.

And this is where things get interesting. When the real shuttle unexpectedly burns up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all of its supposed crew, it’s down to Dr Kelloway to ensure the astronauts - who are now dead to the world – follow, tout suite.

Acting more like college drop-outs than scientists - Brolin, Waterston & OJ play the least convincing astronauts you’re likely to meet this side of spring-break in Fort Lauderdale. How OJ was even chosen for this mission - remember, this mission was meant to be genuine to begin with! - defies belief.

Regardless, these chumps miraculously manage to escape the secret government compound in the desert and spend, more or less, the entire 3rd act of the film involved in a cat and mouse chase with two mysterious black military helicopters.

It’s at this point that my anticipation levels went through the roof. We know these birds are going down in a plume of smoke and twisted metal - it’s just a question of how and when.

With endless possibilities racing through my mind, I can barely be bothered with the other plot line involving rogue journalist Elliot Gould and his attempts to blow the whistle on the whole charade.

So, back to the exploding helicopters and it’s a whole 115 minutes into the films runtime that director Peter Hyams finally shows us what kind of a man he is. Albeit, with the help of some pretty heavyweight Hollywood muscle.

In one of cinema’s more bizarre cameos, Telly Savalas makes a surprisingly comic turn as a narcky old crop-duster pilot who agrees to lend Gould the use of his biplane to search for the missing astronauts.

This leads to an impressive aerial dog-fight between the plane and the two choppers, with Brolin clinging grimly to the plane’s wing. With jagged rocks and hazardous terrain aplenty, it becomes clear how these two choppers will meet their inevitable demise.

Savalas plunges the crop-duster towards an incoming cliff face, barking at Gould to “pull the lever” and release the crop spray. Temporarily blinded, our hapless chopper pilots career into the rock face.

Quite how they hadn’t foreseen this impending obstacle baffles me - movie pilots seem to be devoid of all spatial awareness and depth of field, I’ve noticed.

Chopper one hits the rock face nose first and drops like a stone. No explosion. Was someone asleep on the job. I break into a cold sweat. Surely we haven’t come this far together be denied at the final hurdle?

Fortunately, the pyro-technician for the second chopper is wide awake and it goes up like a Christmas tree. Normality restored, I can relax a little.

For reasons I’m not quite sure, Savalas then shouts “perverts!” for comic effect. By this point one can only assume that Gould was scrabbling to find the lever with the words ‘ejector seat’ on it.

With these two relatively pedestrian helicopter explosions out of the way we’re then treated to one of the strangest sequences to end a movie ever committed to film.

Brolin runs in slow-motion through a cemetery to gatecrash his own funeral. Hyams repeatedly cuts away to the mourners, who remain at normal speed, then back to slow-mo Brolin, and so on and so on, for what seems like an eternity.

What grates about this scene is that Hyams could have employed the same technique to much better effect on the previous helicopter explosions.

“Pervert!” I say.

Number of exploding helicopters


Exploding helicopter innovation

None really. Relatively predictable helicopter vs. rock face premise. Standard usage of 70s pyrotechnics and remote controlled chopper technology. No gimmickry. Old-school.


The expectation of seeing these two choppers explode far outweighs the pay-off.


The lack of slow-motion chopper explosions despite the overuse of it a few minutes later. Unforgivable.

Telly Savalas.

Favourite quote

“Hey, Dr. Kelloway. Funny thing happened on the way to Mars.”

Interesting fact

The film features two military “black helicopters”, which is now a term that’s become synonymous with conspiratorial military activity in the United States.

Review by: Boty

Check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Capricorn One on iTunes, Podomatic, YourListen or Stitcher.


  1. brilliantly well written.

  2. Personally, I think the sub-editor deserves the credit on this one.... ;)

  3. Certainly less libelous. Good work though.