The Astronaut's Wife [DVD]
Screenplay : Rand Ravich
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Johnny Depp (Spencer Armacost), Charlize Theron (Jillian Armacost), Nick Cassavetes (Alex Streck), Blair Brown (Shelly McLaren), Joe Morton (Sherman Reese), Donna Murphy (Natalie Streck), Clea DuVall (Nan), Tom Noonan (Jackson McLaren)
"The Astronaut's Wife" is essentially an inferior variation on "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) dolled up in modern science fiction drag. The same basic themes are there, the same essential fears--that is, a woman's fear that the baby she is carrying inside her is somehow not her own. The lack of control a mother has over her body, the joy and terror of having another life growing insider her--these are the basic elements that comprise the movie's underlying female paranoia.
Unfortunately, however, first-time director Rand Ravich (who also wrote the screenplay) lays it on a little too thick at times, the story development is far too obvious, and the movie suffers from a singularly bad performance by Johnny Depp, whose affected Southern accent sounds as false and mannered as his terrible blond dye job looks.
Depp gets first billing, but the movie truly belongs to Charlize Theron ("The Devil's Advocate," "Mighty Joe Young"), whose Mia Farrow-ish short-cropped haircut simply begs even further comparisons to "Rosemary's Baby." Theron plays Jillian Armacost, wife to astronaut Spencer Armacost (Depp). While Spencer is on a shuttle mission, something strange happens and NASA loses communication with him for two minutes. What happens during those two minutes? Jillian never finds out. But, she does notice strange things happening in her life, and she begins to realize that Spencer is not quite the same anymore. He looks and sounds like her husband, but something is not quite right. Something is different.
Spencer and Jillian move from their comfortable home in Florida to a modernist apartment in New York so Spencer can take a high-level position with an aeronautics firm to build fighter jets. Then, Jillian gets pregnant with twins (after a rough, smothering conception scene that also parallels "Rosemary's Baby"), and the paranoia increases. A former NASA worker, Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), tracks her to New York and begins stalking her, claiming that he knows things about Spencer and the missing two minutes. "He's not your husband, Mrs. Armacost," he declares.
Jillian tries to explain her growing fears to her sister, Nan (Clea DuVall), but Nan won't listen because Jillian has a history of mental instability and had to be hospitalized years earlier when their parents died. Just as Mia Farrow's Rosemary found herself thirty years ago wandering the streets of New York, pregnant and panic-stricken with no one to listen to her, so does Jillian.
In certain moments, "The Astronaut's Wife" works quite well. While it is nicely shot and stuffed with modernist style, most of the movie's success can be attributed to Charlize Theron's natural and affecting performance as the terrified mother-to-be. Theron risks being typecast as wives who suffer because of their husband's actions (remember what happened to her when Keanu Reeves made a deal with the devil in "Devil's Advocate"?), perhaps because she does it so well. Maybe it is because she is so conventionally beautiful, with a face that is well-structured (with those doe eyes and thick lips) to portray deep-seated uneasiness.
Depp, on the other hand, flounders helplessly in a seriously miscast role. Depp has shown great flexibility in movies like "Ed Wood" (1994) and "Donnie Brasco" (1997), but here he has finally met a role he can't embody. Simply put, Johnny Depp is not menacing. He doesn't have the face for it, even when wearing creepy sunglasses and shot in deliberate slow motion to give his movement weight and intensity. And, as mentioned before, he takes on a clumsy Southern accent that, instead of adding to his character, simply makes him sound like Johnny Depp doing a bad Southern accent.
Overall, "The Astronaut's Wife" stumbles because it takes itself too seriously. It aspires to mythic levels of terror, but remains firmly grounded throughout. Perhaps Ravich should have taken the mildly campy route that Taylor Hackford used when directing "Devil's Advocate." That movie had its brief, scary moments, but it kept the proceedings so fun and stylish that it never got heavy and boring. "The Astronaut's Wife" is simply too centered on its own self-importance as moody piece of paranoia. Listening to Al Pacino in "Devil's Advocate" going over-the-top and barking about God being "an absentee landlord" is infinitely more enjoyable than all of "The Astronaut's Wife" put together.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround; Dolby Stereo Surround
Extras: Original theatrical trailer; cast and crew filmographies; DVD-ROM features include original web site content, complete screenplay, and updatable information on cast and crew; also includes a bonus "Lord of the Rings" web browser
Video: The anamorphic digital transfer on this DVD edition of "The Astronaut's Wife" is as solid as one could hope for, with realistic flesh tones, good color saturation, and solid blacks with exquisite, fine-grain detail. The picture is sharp and completely free from any artifacts or film damage.
Audio: The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is also superb, delivering nice surround effects and a good, rumbling bass track. Although the full surround sound isn't called into play regularly, when it is the enveloping effects work nicely.
Extras: The extras on this disc are limited in terms of the DVD player: only the original theatrical trailer and cast and crew filmographies. However, if you own a PC computer with a DVD-ROM drive, the extras increase to include the original screenplay, which you can read while simultaneously watching the film, updatable information on the cast and crew via the Internet, and all the content from the original web site. Of course, if you're like me and own a Macintosh, you're more or less out of luck. I couldn't get any of these features to load on my Mac.
©1999, 2000 James Kendrick