Astronaut's Wife, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Astronaut's Wife is the latest demonstration of how a good "high concept" does not necessarily translate into a decent motion picture. With its Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-inspired storyline, this movie could have been an effectively creepy science fiction/horror movie, but a lazy script and howlingly bad dialogue sinks the project. In the process, several potentially rich opportunities and a pair of credible lead performances are wasted. To its credit, The Astronaut's Wife isn't interested in telling a "standard," big budget alien invasion story (such as the one presented in Independence Day). Instead, it wants to keep things low-key, like in The Arrival, with a dash of Contact thrown in for good measure. It also avoids the Species approach of throwing copious gore, sex, and violence at the audience (although the film could have used a little more of each to liven things up). The problem is that the mix of ingredients are in the wrong proportions. So, instead of getting thought-provoking science fiction, we're stuck with something that's bizarrely paced and occasionally cheesy.

The film opens with promise. Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp) is an astronaut about ready to blast into orbit on a routine space shuttle mission. His wife, Jillian (Charlize Theron), is worried about him as usual, so, after he's in space, he places a ship-to-shore phone call to reassure her. It does the trick - until she catches a TV news update reporting that her husband and another astronaut, Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes), have been involved in an accident. She and Alex's wife, Natalie (Donna Murphy), are whisked off to Mission Control, where a poker-faced official, Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), informs them that their husbands are alive and recovering. Apparently, they were caught in an explosion outside of the shuttle and were out of contact for two minutes.

After Spencer and Alex are back on Earth and have recovered from their experience, things seem to go back to normal, at least for a while. But both men are exhibiting personality changes. Spencer decides to leave NASA, relinquishing his lifelong dream for a desk job in New York City. On the evening of his farewell party, Alex suffers a stroke and dies. Only days later, his distraught wife, after babbling something incoherent about hearing strange whispers, kills herself. Jillian is left wondering what really happened during those two mysterious minutes of her husband's life.

The problem is not the overall plot, which could have formed the foundation of an entertaining movie, but the manner in which writer/director Rand Ravich (making his debut behind the camera after penning scripts like Candyman 2) chooses to develop it. The pace is sluggish. After a solid start, the movie loses its way and spends a long time spinning its wheels as the characters take an inordinate amount of time to discover what the viewers have realized from the beginning - that Spencer literally isn't himself. Then there are a couple of potentially powerful scenes that are robbed of all impact by Ravich's heavy-handed approach. In one, for example, Jillian contemplates terminating a pregnancy because her unborn twins might in some way be contaminated. Instead of allowing Theron to underplay the scene and bring out the full tragedy through her performance, Ravich goes for over-the-top hysteria that approaches campiness. Theron spends the entire scene staggering around the bathroom and moaning about how she can't do it/has to do it. And this isn't the only instance when something is handled in this manner.

Rarely can a screenplay claim such consistently bad dialogue. It doesn't just mar an occasional scene or two, but is a pervasive problem throughout. I actually felt embarrassed for Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco) and Charlize Theron (Mighty Joe Young), the talented thespians forced to spout such utter nonsense. In fact, aside from a couple of awkward scenes, these two do solid jobs. Early in the film, they effectively convey the deep love and companionship between Jillian and Spencer (although Ravich doesn't do much with those feelings once they're on screen). Supporting Depp and Theron are the always reliable Joe Morton (Blues Brothers 2000), Nick (son of John) Cassavetes, and Donna Murphy (Star Trek: Insurrection).

To add insult to injury, the conclusion is laughably absurd, with a few token special effects thrown into the mix in an attempt to disguise a silly and misguided "twist" that is neither credible nor satisfying. In fact, the climactic scene will force those who have previously been willing to suspend their disbelief to throw up their hands in defeat. It's ludicrous that Ravich could seriously expect anyone in the audience to accept this resolution. Then again, the ending really isn't much different from the rest of The Astronaut's Wife - a wasted opportunity.

Astronaut's Wife, The (United States, 1999)

Director: Rand Ravich
Cast: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Nick Cassavetes, Blair Brown, Joe Morton, Donna Murphy, Tom Noonan, Clea DuVall
Screenplay: Rand Ravich
Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Music: George S. Clinton
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 1999-08-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1