Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. USA/United Kingdom, 1977. Associated General Films, ITC Films. Screenplay by Peter Hyams. Cinematography by Bill Butler. Produced by Paul N. Lazarus III. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Production Design by Albert Brenner. Costume Design by Patricia Norris. Film Editing by James Mitchell.
A rocket ship launches in full view of an excited audience, its mission after sixteen years of preparation to send three astronauts (O.J. Simpson, Sam Waterston and James Brolin) to Mars. Just before takeoff, the pilots are escorted out of the cockpit, flown far away and placed in lockup while the ship goes ahead, unmanned into space. Shady government operative Hal Holbrook explains that a mechanical failure discovered on board before takeoff would have sent the men to their deaths but, because of the publicity and expenditure of the project, head office needed to keep this failure a secret and let the people of America go on thinking that the mission is a go. The pilots are coerced into participating in a sham that includes fake footage of them walking on the red planet that is actually a constructed set, but when the actual space ship heading through the skies blows up, the guys start thinking that the government might kill them to keep the story intact. Escaping their makeshift prison and making their way into the desert, they have no help except for the clues being put together by a nosy television reporter back home (Elliott Gould) whose investigation into the matter inspires attempts on his life that convince him that something strange is truly going on. Brenda Vaccaro has a wonderful, warm supporting role as Brolin’s wife in this gorgeously shot but vapid conspiracy thriller, in which Peter Hyams fails to bring the wry mischief that John Frankenheimer infused in The Manchurian Candidate that made it ironically credible (even those lunatics who believe in moon landing conspiracies will laugh at this one). This film has too many protagonists and a few sequences that make little sense (removing a guy’s brakes does not make the car accelerate when there’s no downhill roads, and it also takes about nine years to get to Mars, by the way). It also fails as indulgent kitsch, the whole thing is far more humourless than is necessary, but if you’re curious about the state of science fiction on the cusp of Star Wars coming out that same year, by all means give it a shot; if you’re watching it because you liked The Parallax View prepare to be disappointed.