Category Archives: Movies Based on Conspiracy Theories

Simon (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: College professor becomes brainwashed.

An underground group of scientists who enjoy playing elaborate pranks decide to brainwash a college professor named Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) into believing that he is an alien from another planet. After he is successfully brainwashed he then escapes from the institution and gets in with a religious cult who have a transmitter that can block the TV airwaves and allow him the ability to be seen by the entire nation where he tries to reform American culture while also becoming a celebrity sensation.

This extremely odd comical satire  seems out of place for a studio backed film and more in tune with a independent project as it’s unclear what specific type of audience the filmmakers were hoping to attract as mainstream viewers will most likely find the humor off-putting. One could describe it as being ahead-of-its-time, but the banal potshots at such overused targets as TV and American consumerism makes it seem more dated instead.

The movie would’ve worked better had it remained focused on one intended target and then ravaged the hell out of it instead of soft jabs at various safe targets, which makes its overall message muddled and unclear. There are some funny bits including watching Austin Pendleton, who is the head of the research group, making love to a giant telephone receiver, whose voice is supplied by Louise Lasser. It’s also funny having a brainwashed person such as Simon trying to brainwash others via the airwaves, which could’ve been really hilarious had they gone farther with this idea.

There’s signs that writer/director Marshall Brickman hadn’t fully thought through the quirky story idea to begin with. For instance why would this underground group of scientists allow a video crew in to film what they are doing as the members are seen at the beginning talking directly to the camera and answering questions by some unseen interviewer. Wouldn’t this allow their secret to get out and get them into trouble? The army that takes over the institute is too incompetent as Simon and his girlfriend Lisa (Judy Graubart) are able to escape from it too easily and their inability to locate Simon’s rogue TV transmitter even after days of searching is rather pathetic. I realize this is meant to be ‘funny’, but even a comedy should have some tension to it to make it more interesting and the army’s extreme buffoonery isn’t humorous at all, but just plain dumb instead.

Arkin is the one thing that saves it. His unusual acting style makes him hard to cast, but here he really delivers especially during the segment where he plays out the evolution of man, but without using any dialogue although it might’ve been funnier and more of an interesting contrast had his character not been so kooky to begin with, but instead some stuffy intellectual only to become zany once he was brainwashed.

Judy Graubart makes for a good anchor as the one normal person in the whole movie. She was best known for her work on the children’s TV-show ‘The Electric Company’ and this was her live-action film debut, which should’ve lead to a long line of film appearances, but instead she only had brief bits in two other movies and that was it.

There are signs of a great movie trying to break out and the overall concept has brilliant potential, but this is the type of film where you’ve got to go full-throttle and Brickman seems either unable or too timid to do that making what could’ve been sharp satire into a transparent, benign mess that offers only a few chuckles, but not much else.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Marshall Brickman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive) Amazon Video, YouTube

The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hijacker eludes the authorities.

Loosely based on the real-life incident involving a man using the alias of Dan Cooper, but later reported in the media as D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a Boeing 727 as it flew towards Seattle, Washington on the night of November 24, 1971 and parachuted out of the plane with $200,000, but whose remains have never been found. In the film D.B. Cooper is the alias for Jim Meade and is played by Treat Williams as he parachutes into a wooden area and becomes chased by Bill Gruen (Robert Duvall) who was Meade’s sergeant in the army and feels he knows him better than anyone.

Had the film made some legitimate attempt at accuracy it might’ve been moderately intriguing, but right from the start it plays fast-and-loose with the facts including having the jump take places in the sunny daytime when in reality it occurred at night during a rainstorm. The time period is supposed to be late autumn, but many people are shown doing summertime activities like having a couple going skinny dipping in a pond even though it would’ve been too chilly for that. There’s also a ridiculous scene where Paul Gleason, playing a useless character that was not needed at all, going headfirst through the front windshield of a moving car and receiving a slight cut on his right cheek as his only injury.

John Frankenheimer was originally hired to direct, but after having numerous arguments with the producers over the film’s insipid script he was fired. He was then replaced by Buzz Kulik who tried turning it into a topical drama by portraying the Cooper character as being a disgruntled Vietnam Vet. Roger Spottiswoode and Ron Shelton were then brought it to ‘jazz-it-up’ a bit with some stunt-work and the chase scene down the rapids is impressive, but the humor they put in is dumb and the ‘Dukes of Hazard-like soundtrack ill-advised.

I started to feel that it would’ve worked better had it not connected itself to the real incident at all but instead had Williams portray a fictional character all together. It also should’ve analyzed the planning/preparation phase much more and shown him pulling off the actual hijacking instead of just starting out with the parachute jump.

While he doesn’t look anything like the sketches shown of the real Cooper I still found Williams to be fun in the lead and Kathryn Harrold lends great support as his resourceful wife. Duvall is solid as usual and even though it doesn’t take place in the Pacific Northwest, which is where the real incident occurred, I still enjoyed the sunny scenery, but that’s where the good points begin and end in a movie that clearly had misfired written all over it before even one frame of it was filmed.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 13, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Roger Spottiswoode, Buzz Kulik (Uncredited)

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD (Region 2), Amazon Video, YouTube.

The Formula (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nazis create synthetic fuel.

While investigating the murder of his former police mentor, Lt. Barney Caine (George C. Scott) stumbles upon a an underworld of drug money and illicit funds that connect back to a petroleum company run by Adam Steiffel (Marlon Brando). He later learns that it has to do with a synthetic fuel invented by the Nazis during World War II that could be created from coal instead of oil, which if unleashed would unbalance the world markets and those that know about it are now being silenced permanently.

MGM offered to make the movie before Steve Shagan had even completed the novel of which is is based figuring that the topic of synthetic fuel would grab audiences since it conformed to the issue of the energy crisis that was making headlines during that era. Unfortunately the story works better in novel form because as a movie it amounts to nothing more than scene after scene of talking heads with no visual style or cinematic quality to it and the only interesting images, which include watching a frog swim across a chlorine filled pool and alligators munching on their lunch, has nothing to do with the actual plot at all.

Scott’s character is equally dull. He’s seen at the start leaving a movie theater with his son (Ike Eisenmann), which I guess is a cheap attempt to ‘humanize’ the character, but then he’s never seen with him again. He’s also initially straddled with a police partner (Calvin Jung) and their relationship gets off to a rocky start, which I thought would offer some secondary drama, but then he disappears too leaving him only with Marthe Keller, who replaced Dominique Sanda who Scott disliked because of her French accent, who acts as a potential love interest that is both stale and unneeded.

The film’s only entertaining aspect is Brando who manages to steal every scene he’s in by playing up the comic angle. He demanded complete control over how his character dressed and in the process sported a goofy comb-over and a hearing aid, which gives the guy a quirky charm. He also mostly ad-libbed his lines and refused to learn the ones in the script, which helps enliven the otherwise staid drama with some nice offbeat touches that I wished had been played-up more and it’s a shame that he wasn’t made the star as he’s the only thing that saves it.

The plot does have some intriguing qualities to it, but Shagan who also acted as the film’s producer, gives away all the secrets too early. Instead of waiting until the very end to find out what the code name Genesis stands for we’re told the answer at the halfway mark making the second half seem pointless and petering itself out with one of the dullest, most anti-climactic finales ever filmed.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John G. Avildsen

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD

Winter Kills (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Who assassinated his brother?

19 years after United States President Timothy Kegan is assassinated and an independent investigation concluded that it was the act of a lone gunman, his younger brother Nick (Jeff Bridges) gets a deathbed confession from a man (Joe Spinell) insisting he was the real killer hired by a secret underground organization. Nick goes to his rich father (John Huston) with the news and then decides to do an investigation of his own, but becomes entangled inside a web of lies and deceit that drives him further away from the truth instead of closer.

The film is based on the novel by Richard Condon and in many ways is a stunning filmmaking debut for director William Richert. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is richly textured with a colorful variety of backdrops, sets and atmosphere making it visually soar while the surreal tone helps give it an added edge.

Unfortunately the film suffered from many behind-the-scenes issues including running out of funding and forcing the cast and crew to put the production on hold while they went overseas to shoot The American Success Company in Germany and then used the proceeds from that one to finish this one. The final result is a fragmented narrative that at times gets too rushed. The story was significantly paired down from the novel, which leaves open a lot of loose ends and it should probably be remade as a miniseries.

The story is also permeated with a lot of dark humor which only makes the viewer even more confused. Some of it is genuinely funny, but it’s unclear what it’s trying to satirize. Certain absurd situations and oddball characters get thrown in for seemingly no reason and takes away from the otherwise compelling storyline while leaving the viewer baffled as to what the point of it was supposed to be and could easily explain why it bombed so badly at the box office during its initial run.

The casting is interesting. Jeff Bridges usually gets stuck in bland, transparent roles and that’s no different here, but he’s surrounded by so many eccentrics that his otherwise vanilla delivery seems refreshing and distinct. Huston is the real star in a bravura performance that steals the film and makes it memorable. There’s also a lot of recognizable supporting players that are on only briefly and if you blink you’ll miss them. This includes an uncredited appearance by Elizabeth Taylor who comes on near the end and has no lines of dialogue, but does clearly mouth the words ‘son-of-a-bitch’.

If you are looking for something that is offbeat, but still intriguing then this is well worth the effort. If it weren’t for its misguided humor this thing could’ve really had an impact although it does reveal its cards too soon and I was able to guess the twist ending long before it actually happened, but as a whole it has its moments and a potential cult following or sure.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 11, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Richert

Studio: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Capricorn One (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mars landing is fake.

Due to finding out about having a faulty life support system James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook), who heads the NASA mars mission, decides to have the three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, O. J. Simpson) removed from inside the rocket just before it is ready to blast off. He then allows the rocket to take off leaving everyone on the ground with the mistaken impression that the astronauts are still inside. The astronauts later walk onto a soundstage that is made to replicate the mars surface where they pretend to be walking on the planet live on television. As the rocket stays on mars the three astronauts remain trapped inside the NASA space center unable to let even their families in on their secret, but when the rocket returns to earth it gets accidently destroyed. Since the three men are still thought to be inside and since the government wouldn’t want to whole world to know it was a hoax the men are forced to make a daring escape across the hot desert in order to avoid being killed.

The script was originally written in 1969 and was an attempt by director Peter Hyams to take advantage of the moon landing conspiracy that was going on at the time, but no studio was willing to take it on, so it took 9 years and a change of planets before it finally got the green light. I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories as I think a lot of them are too dependent on a great many people working together and being able to keep a secret in order for them to be pulled off. Since it’s hard for just two people to pull off a crime such as a murder without one eventually turning on the other, or breaking down under pressure, then it’s even harder to believe hundreds could keep quiet it in order to successfully pull off the so-called moon landing hoax, or that at some later time one of them wouldn’t have divulged the secret to a family member, friend, or even anonymously to the press.

In either case it’s an entertaining movie for the most part although the first hour is spotty and it only really gets gripping during second-half. To some degree I thought it would’ve been more interesting had the focus been on the people setting up the ruse and working to make the soundstage look like mars than on the astronauts. It also might’ve been more impactful to the viewer had they been given the idea that the landing was real and only when the men are seen walking on the mars surface does the camera pull back to show that it was all fake instead of revealing the conspiracy right from the start.

The problem that I had though was with Elliot Gould’s character. Don’t get me wrong I liked the way he plays the part as a sort-of disheveled, loser hero who strikes out with the ladies, but the fact that the government is on him so quickly and trying to kill him before he has even written one single report about the mars landing makes little sense. Later on he gets bailed out of jail by his boss, played by David Doyle, who openly admits to hating Gould and immediately fires him the second he pays his bail, but why spend company money on someone you don’t like and don’t want working for you?

Spoiler Alert!

The ending features a well photographed aerial chase through the skies that is very exciting, but the wrap-up in which James Brolin, who is the last surviving astronaut that manages to escape the deadly clutches of the government and appears to shock of everyone at his own funeral seems to ruin the premise. For conspiracy theories to hold their mystique there needs to be the idea that the bad guys were able to get away with it and that it is actually possible to successfully kill off all the possible leaks and manage to hold the rest to strict secrecy. By having someone survive only proves the point that I made earlier and thus makes all those other conspiracy theories that permeate modern culture seem dubious as well because mostly likely the same result would’ve ultimately happened with those that happened with this one.

End of Spoiler Alert!

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 2, 1978

Runtime: 2 Hours 3 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Hyams

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, YouTube, Amazon Video, Blu-ray