When NASA agreed to cooperate with Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller, producer Paul Lazarus III was astonished. Why would they, when the film so maligned their image? Perhaps NASA saw how unbelievable the set-up was: nowadays, audiences are more likely to be surprised by how entertaining the film is despite its strains on plausibility.
A cash-in on ’70s conspiracy movies bankrolled by Lew Grade and directed by the man behind Michael Caine flop Peeper doesn’t promise much. Cameos were cast purely to secure investment (O.J. Simpson, Telly Savalas). A summer release date was secured solely because Superman: The Movie suffered delays.
That it works is partly due to casting, with Hal Holbrook as the suit who coerces three astronauts into faking a Mars landing. Even better is Elliott Gould, exuding a whiff of weed, wet dog and welcome irony as he shambles in from Robert Altman-land to play a cynical journo.
The result is an opportunistic but enjoyable mash of post-Watergate thinking and chase cinema, the latter following our astronauts’ escape from NASA containment across the desert. Jerry Goldsmith’s score adds propulsion and Hyams keeps the action lively, especially for the showdown between NASA choppers and Savalas’ crop-duster.
Swallowing the spectacle of someone clinging to a loop-the-looping plane’s wing is a struggle, true. But once you’ve been persuaded by fake space travel, a decent Savalas cameo and a fun film from the director of End Of Days, you’re ready to swallow anything. Long-simmering rumours of a remake shouldn’t surprise anyone.
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