Fly Me to the Moon isn’t the first movie about a fake space mission

Chris Tilly
Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum overseeing the space race in Fly Me to the Moon.

Fly Me to the Moon is a new romantic-comedy that stars Scarlett Johnasson and Channing Tatum, and appears to be about the moon landing being faked. But this isn’t the first time a movie has focussed on such a conspiracy, as Capricorn One got there first.

Fly Me to the Moon inspired much head-scratching when the movie’s trailer dropped yesterday. An apparent rom-com featuring two huge stars, it then segues into a story about one of the great conspiracy theories of the last century; that the moon landing was faked.

Yup, there’s a distressingly high number who believe Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t walk on the lunar surface in 1969, but rather that the pictures beamed across the globe were filmed in a TV studio very much on earth.

A bloke called Bill Kaysing kicked this lie off by self-publishing a pamphlet in 1976 — based on a hunch — called ‘We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.’ The conspiracy then grew and mutated, largely based on the way shadows fall in the images, combined with a lack of stars, and missing blast crater beneath the landing module.

How Fly me to the Moon adds fuel to the conspiracy fire

All those theories have been debunked. Claims that the many thousands of scientists and technicians responsible for getting men on the moon kept quiet about the fact it’s a hoax for the last 50 years are, frankly, ridiculous.

But that hasn’t stopped the spread of said conspiracy, and Fly Me to the Moon looks to be adding fuel to the fire, with Woody Harrelson’s character demanding: “We need to shoot a back-up version of the moon landing,” and Johansson responding with “You mean to fake it?” Her character even jokes about the legendary director who was said to have overseen the fake shoot by stating: “I think we should’ve gotten Kubrick.”

This narrative — even if it’s debunked by the end of the movie — will doubtless have NASA employees tearing their hair out as they have to explain, once again, that we really did land on the moon. But this isn’t the first time a movie has raised doubts about the space race.

What is Capricorn One about?

Written and directed by Peter Hyams, and shot in 1977, Capricorn One concerns three astronauts — played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson — on a mission to Mars. But just before their rocket departs, the trio are removed from the craft, and taken to an abandoned military base in the desert.

NASA tells them that the ship’s live-support system was broken, and that they must fake landing on Mars in a TV studio to prevent the space program from being shut down. The men initially refuse, but ultimately agree when their families are threatened.

A journalist — suspecting something is amiss — investigates the supposed mission. At the same time, the astronaut’s original spacecraft burns up during re-entry, which pretty much signs their own death warrants.

What follows is part-action movie, part-thriller, as both the spacemen and reporter desperately try to get the truth out before being bumped off.

Regarding inspiration for the story, Hyams told Empire: “Whenever there was something on the news about a space shuttle, they would cut to a studio in St. Louis where there was a simulation of what was going on. I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true. That turned out to be bullsh*t. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullsh*t too. So I was watching these simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.”

“The mission that never got off the ground”

Capricorn One — billed as “the mission that never got off the ground” — clearly touched a nerve, as in spite of middling reviews, the movie grossed $12 million from an estimated budget of $5 million. All while adding feeding the myth of the landing.

Whether Fly Me to the Moon will have the same effect when it hits screens this July remains to be seen. But NASA will doubtless be dreading the release, as the operation’s former historian Roger Launius believes that the further we get from major events, the worse hoax theories become.

“We’ve seen it with the Second World War and the Holocaust,” Launius told The Guardian in 2019. “A lot of the witnesses are passing from the scene and it’s easy for people to deny that it took place. Who is left to counteract things that are untrue? Mythologies develop and become the dominant theme.”

Fly Me to the Moon hits screens on July 12, 2024. While for previews of movies releasing later this month, head here.