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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

My esteemed online colleague, Bryant Frazer, suggested that this picture be called "Apollo 13 Meets Rosemarie's Baby," which suggests that perhaps the reason New Line Cinema chose not to screen the movie for critics is its belief that the derivativeness would turn off reviewers. You can find in "The Astronaut's Wife" elements of "Rosemarie's Baby," but also some of "The Thing," "Species II," "The Brood," "Village of the Damned," and a host of other sci-fi thrillers. Since the picture avoids the usual schlock shockers like eels crawling out of bellies and snakes from eyes, the picture might suggest even "The Blair Witch Project." After all, except for a quick, understated flash of the usual horror-genre special effects near the conclusion, "The Astronaut's Wife" is free of shoddy visual disturbances.

Stylishly designed and photographed, the movie recalls Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear," except that first-time director Rand Ravich's piece gathers increasing momentum as the story glides and then lurches toward its predictable conclusion. Like Altman's fashion statement, Ravich's movie seems conceived as a showcase for one of Hollywood's prettiest performers, Charlize Theron, in the title role. With her hair cut short to accentuate every aspect of her alluring features, Theron becomes a veritable object of love for Allen Daviau's camera. And what a wardrobe has been set out for her! Theron's character, Jillian, dons dresses for all occasions--black for formal wear when she is at a party of her fabulously wealthy New York neighbors, a lovely chocolate-brown turtleneck for more casual days around her Washington Square digs. Her ensemble cannot quite cover up her emotional instability, however. While we in the audience are always aware that something may have gone terribly wrong with her marriage after her husband returns from space, we can't help feeling that her psychological condition merely reflects stress from her move to New York and from her new experience with pregnancy.

While "The Astronaut's Wife" focuses on Theron's character, Jillian Armacost, Ravich's script provides ample possibilities for Johnny Depp to play against type as a straight, all-American space traveler who raises few suspicions about his emotional stability for the major part of the drama. Depp plays an astronaut, Commander Spencer Armacost, who travels on a shuttle mission with co-pilot Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes). When the two-man crew loses contact with mission control for two minutes, the ship is brought swiftly back to earth, where Streck soon dies of a heart attack and Armacost refuses to discuss the phenomenon of the lost minutes in space. When Jillian becomes pregnant, she begins to suspect that her husband is not the man she knows, but is afraid to reveal her suspicions for fear they will be mistaken for the musings of a woman undergoing hormonal changes.

The major part of the picture is paced slowly. Ravich is more interested in exposition than in punctuating the story with crude shocks, trusting that the payoff will be all the more dramatic when the situation heats up. Since we're bound to be a couple of steps ahead of Jillian, having perhaps seen more sci-fi movies than she, the outcome is anticlimactic, and what's more we're not entirely clear what a sinister, alien force has in store for us human beings. We can live with these flaws given the stylish design that Ravich throws on the proceedings, almost as though he had chosen to compete with John McTiernan's "The Thomas Crown Affair" for lavish settings. We get some good, satiric insight into the life of New York society as the wife of an aerospace executive, Shelly McLaren (Blair Brown), talks of fashion and the French Caribbean, and as a guest at a company party finds better things to do than to waste time with a second-grade teacher. Joe Morton doesn't fix any pinball machines this time around but puts in a reliable performance as a NASA official who goes half-crazy when he discovers some frightening information, and Johnny Depp glides confidently through the picture as the blond-haired hero with a trophy wife that he genuinely adores.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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