The Astronaut's Wife (1999)
Directed by Rand Ravich
Cast: Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp, Joe Morton, Clea DuVall, Donna Murphy, Nick Cassavetes, Samantha Eggar, Blair Brown, Tom Noonan, Cole Sprouse, Dylan Sprouse.
1999 109 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 29, 1999.
Charlize Theron's really gotta get out of the city. In 1997's superb thriller, "The Devil's Advocate," she starred as a happy-go-lucky wife who travelled to New York City with her husband when he got a job at a prestigious law firm, and immediately went into a mental downward spiral as she began to suspect the people around her were demons. Change the demons to aliens, and what you've got is "The Astronaut's Wife," which certainly has the talent involved to make the film a suspenseful thriller, but is solely sunk on the shoulders of one culprit: writer-director Rand Ravich. Judging only on the work he does here, Ravich is akin to writing overblown, at times even laughable, dialogue, and wouldn't know subtlety if it came up and slapped him on the face. Sorry, folks. What you see is what you get with "The Astronaut's Wife," and what I saw wasn't very pretty.
Spencer (Johnny Depp) and Jillian Armacost (Charlize Theron) are a warm, loving married couple living in Florida, with Spencer an astronaut, and Jillian a second-grade teacher. When Spencer blasts off once again with his colleague, Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes), Jillian is worried as usual, and even more so when, the next day, she and her younger sister, Nan (Clea DuVall), catch a report on the news that states Spencer and Alex lost contact for two minutes after a mysterious blast in space. Jillian and Alex's wife, Natalie (Donna Murphy), are relieved to learn by Mission Control that their husbands are fine, have been tested for any possible problems, and are recovering. Things go back to normal, almost. Although Spencer never talks about what happened during the two lost minutes (on the taped recording, there was a bunch of screaming, but nothing more), he announces to Jillian that his piloting days are over, and that he has been offered a business job in NYC. She hesitantly agrees, but before they leave, Alex abruptly suffers a stroke and does, while the grieving, paranoid Natalie commits suicide at the funeral reception a couple days later. In New York, Jillian quickly gets another elementary school teaching job, but she starts to suspect something isn't quite right with Spencer, this suspicion further confirmed when an official from Florida, Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), comes up to tell her that the third noise on the audio wasn't the blast, but another lifeform, and that Natalie was pregnant with twins when she killed herself. Oddly, Jillian has also just discovered that she is a few months along with twins, so...what exactly is inside of her?
"The Astronaut's Wife" isn't the most original of films, but (aside from it blatantly ripping off 1968's spooky Roman Polanski classic, "Rosemary's Baby," right down to Theron's short blond hair mirroring that on Mia Farrow's) it is the type of story that effortlessly could have become an enthralling, frightening motion picture on the subject of paranoia, somewhat like the recent "Arlington Road," had it been made with a firmer hand. Unfortunately, what we get instead are a group of characters who are intellectually far slower than the viewer, because if they had realized the obvious right from the get-go--that Spencer isn't really Spencer once he returns--then the movie would have been over at the 30-minute mark, which isn't exactly long enough to add up to a feature film. It really is frustrating, however, to watch people who are unmistakably written below average intelligence, because you instantly stop believing what is happening on-screen, and are forced to realize that, yes, it is only a movie, albeit one that holds its audience in contempt.
That's not the worst of the film's problems; I wish it was. Also on the screenplay level, the dialogue often is some of the most unintentionally laugh-inducing of the whole year. In one supposed-to-be-serious scene, Jillian is speaking on the phone with Sherman Reese, who is trying to tell her some important information about her husband. What is her reply? "Did you ever hear the story of the prince and princess, Mr. Reese?" Jillian asks, as she goes on to tell an elaborate fairly tale as tears stream down her face. In another sequence, out of the blue, Jillian turns on the radio and does a dance around her apartment. And finally, in what should have signalled the firing of the costume designer, and did signal a pretty hearty laugh from myself, Nan wears a ritzy, colorful feathered coat out to a restaurant, and doesn't exactly blend in with the others. Did she win the lottery after Spencer and Jillian moved up to the Big Apple?
If the movie is a disaster on the writing and directing levels, at least most of the performances are strong and effective, and on a technical level, it is often impressive. Amid her embarrassing lines of dialogue she is forced to mutter, Theron once again proves to be a presence to be reckoned with. Even if her character isn't written at the fully-developed level of the tragic one she played in "The Devil's Advocate," give her points for rising above the material and successfully acting as a likable protagonist. The almost-always-superb Johnny Depp is the weakest acting link. Regardless of the palpable air of menace he presents here, his character is a one-dimensional villain, and every facial expression he vents off practically screams, "I'm the baddie here!" In supporting roles, Donna Murphy has a touching final scene, and Joe Morton is sympathetic even if his only reason for being is to explain the goings-on. Clea DuVall, as Jillian's sister, Nan, gives the best performance in the whole film, and sells each and every one of her lines. It's just too bad she also is written to be a nitwit who doesn't even bother listening to Jillian's predicament, and the pay-off of her character is extremely disappointing.
"The Astronaut's Wife" carries out a bidding war throughout on a pacing level. Every time it gets set to take off, it quickly slows down again. If this movie was a stick-shift car, I would be fully convinced that the driver had never been taught how to use it. On a positive note, there are some nice touches sprinkled throughout, including a powerful visual image in one scene of Jillian and Spencer sitting in front of a giant U.S. flag that covers the whole background. Another scene set in a storage building extracts a fair amount of tenseness out of the situation, while the use of the atmospheric music score, by George S. Clinton, and fast-motion cinematography, hint at how striking the film might have been with someone else at the helm.
Too bad director Ravich betrays his audience even more during the last act. Not only has this "twist" been done before, but in the confines of this particular film, it is almost maddeningly inadequate and a huge cheat. Forget about the time we have invested getting to know and like Theron's character; forget about the 109 minutes we've wasted waiting for a gratifying finale; oh, and forget about me even considering giving this inept sci-fi/thriller a passing grade.
©1999 by Dustin Putman