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The Astronaut's Wife

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Astronaut's Wife

Starring: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron
Director: Rand Ravich
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: September 1999
Genres: Horror, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thriller

*Also starring: Joe Morton, Tom Noonan, Blair Brown, Nick Cassavetes, Clea Duvall, Donna Murphy

Review by Greg King
2½ stars out of 4

In the recent Species II, a highly decorated astronaut returned to earth carrying a vicious, predatory alien creature intent on destroying life on earth. The Astronaut's Wife takes the same concept, but explores it on a far more subtle and visceral level, injecting the intriguing premise with a healthy dose of paranoia and 90's style cynicism. This eerie, stylish but low key paranoid thriller also adds a healthy dose of low key horror, reminiscent of the classic Rosemary's Baby, although ultimately it fails to deliver.

During an unexpected accident in space, shuttle astronaut Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp) loses contact with earth for a couple of minutes. During that time something mysterious happens that leaves him and his partner Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) in a coma. When he recovers Spencer somehow seems different. The changes in his personality are slight, but they are enough to unnerve his emotionally fragile wife Jillian (Charlize Theron, from The Devil's Advocate and Mighty Joe Young, etc).

When a tragedy befalls the Strecks, Spencer decides to leave the space program to take up an executive position with an aeronautical company developing a new high tech weapons system. He also leaves sunny Florida for the claustrophobic confines of new York, a city he supposedly hates with a passion. Jillian reluctantly follows him, but becomes more and more spooked by his behaviour. Then Reese (Joe Morton), a disgraced former NASA employee, approaches her with frantic messages and dire warnings that her husband may not be the man she married. Did something happen to him in space during those lost two minutes? Is she pregnant with an alien life form?

First time director Rand Ravich (whose previous credits include the script for Candyman II: Farewell To The Flesh) doesn't give easy answers to many of the questions raised by the plot, forcing audiences to do some of the work in piecing together the details of this challenging, unusual film. Ravich develops a nicely ambiguous mood, and we are not quite sure whether the unstable Jillian is imagining things or not.

Ravich opts for creating an unsettling atmosphere here, and he certainly gives us that in spades. Much of the credit for the film's cold and deliberately unsettling ambience and visual style goes to veteran cinematographer Allen Daviau. His unnerving use of close-ups imbue inanimate objects with a very real sense of menace, and his very mobile camera adds movement to otherwise static scenes. The impressive production design and the cold interior of the Armacost's sterile apartment also enhance the film's mood.

The performances are also interesting, and underscore the ambiguous tone. Depp continues to find interesting roles outside the mainstream of American cinema, although he gives a fairly one- dimensional and uninspired performance here. Although his understated performance hints at madness, somehow he never seems as menacing or as chilling as he should be. This is actually Theron's film, as she is in every scene and virtually every frame. The camera loves her and spends an inordinate amount of time ravishing her in close up. This unfortunately distracts from her performance, which is a mixture of appealing vulnerability and strength. Morton is also good as the deeply disturbed Reese.

The Astronaut's Wife is an off beat, low key and down beat sci-fi thriller that lacks the broad appeal, spectacular pyrotechnics and visual effects of most big budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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