The Astronaut’s Wife

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Nick Cassavetes
Extras: Theatrical trailer, Filmographies

I like movies that come from the "What if?" or the "Wouldn’t it be cool if?" school of filmmaking. These are movies that start with a very basic central premise that is usually built around one idea or even one scene. For example, "Wouldn’t it be cool if a guy could slide down a stairway banister and shoot everyone in sight?" The result, John Woo’s "Hard Boiled." (Of course, I’m only imagining that this is the origin of the film. My apologies to Mr. Woo.) The film "The Astronaut’s Wife" asks the question, "What if ’Rosemary’s Baby’ had come from outer space by way of ’Species 2’?" This film, starring Charlize Theron and Johnny Depp, falls way short in the originality department, but manages to tell an old story in a very classy way.

Theron plays Jillian Armacost, the wife of astronaut Spencer Armacost (Depp). Spencer has just gone up on another routine shuttle mission and Jillian is busy with her life as a school teacher. Then, Jillian receives disturbing news. There has been an explosion during a satellite repair and contact with the astronauts was lost for two minutes. The shuttle is ordered to make an emergency landing.
The shuttle returns to earth and Spencer, along with fellow astronaut Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) are admitted to the hospital. Alex has suffered some internal injuries, but Spencer appears to be fine. After several days, Spencer is released from the hospital. He then retires from NASA and accepts a job with an aeronautics firm in New York City.

After arriving in New York, things begin to get weird. Spencer becomes cold and distant. Jillian is bored with their new upper-class lifestyle. After a night of drunken, yet passionless sex, Jillian finds herself pregnant — with twins no less. Jillian begins to suspect that something happened to Spencer during that two-minute blackout that he’s not talking about. NASA scientist Sherman Reese ("T2"’s Joe Morton) approaches Jillian with some disturbing information about the shuttle mission and Spencer’s medical tests. As Jillian becomes more paranoid, and begins to seriously wonder what is wrong with Spencer and what is growing inside of her, she realizes that there’s no one that she can trust and that she must take matters into her own hands.

"The Astronaut’s Wife" is a tough movie to review. It is a beautifully made movie, with some truly stunning visuals, but it is truly lacking in the story department and on the dramatic side. It’s almost as if writer/director Rand Ravich (probably best known as the writer of "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh") purposely gave the film a benign and overly-familiar plot so that the audience could focus more on the pretty pictures. I realize that there aren’t that many original movies made these days, but "The Astronaut’s Wife" blatantly borrows from "Rosemary’s Baby" (even down to Charlize Theron’s "Mia Farrow haircut"), "Species 2", "The Devil’s Advocate" (hasn’t Theron moved to New York City and been unhappy with success before? …hmmm), and "The Unborn". Only in the last five minutes, with the film’s very shocking conclusion (I truly didn’t see that one coming), does the film come into it’s own. I must say this for the plot, the film does a great job of being vague, although it is oftentimes very slow in its pacing, destroying much of the dramatic impact it could have had. We learn early on that Jillian has a history of psychotic episodes and the viewer is given very few clues as to whether or not something extraterrestrial is forming inside Jillian’s womb until the very end.

What Rand’s film lacks in story, it certainly makes up for in its cinematic appeal. The movie is full of dream-like images, with Rand’s camera zooming in close to reveal intimate details (Theron’s lips) or pulling back to show a grand scope (a tent in which a party is held). There is an amazing shot of Jillian standing still in a school hallway, while the school children mill about her in fast motion. Another interesting shot choice is the emergency landing of the shuttle. Instead of showing the actual spacecraft, we see a nose-cone view of the landing on a monitor, which Jillian is standing in front of. There are many shots such as this one in "The Astronaut’s Wife" which are open to interpretation by the viewer. Another interesting visual aspect of the film is the production design and the costuming. While Rand’s camera is always making impressive moves, it also always has something breathtaking to shoot, especially the opulent apartment that Jillian and Spencer share that is ominously portrayed as if shrouded in eternal twilight.

Rand’s camera also records some good performances by the actors. Theron continues to prove that she is more than just a pretty face (despite the bad haircut) by giving a deeply emotional and moving performance. Depp is downright scary as Spencer, not just because of his creepy demeanor, but more so due to his dyed hair and his southern accent. Joe Morton steals the show as the wide-eyed conspiracy theorist Reese. Tom Noonan ("Manhunter", "The Last Action Hero") has a small role as Spencer’s boss. He makes his entrance by sort of leaning into the frame. That scared the hell out of me! Samantha Eggar has a cameo as a doctor. Has it really been 20 years since "The Brood"?

New Line Home Video’s DVD of "The Astronaut’s Wife" is devoid of their usual special features, but nonetheless gives us a nice copy of the film. The movie is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The transfer on the disc is razor-sharp and staggeringly detailed, without the slightest defects or grain in the source print. The word pristine comes to mind. The color saturation is flawless, bringing out even the most subtle hues in the film faithfully and nicely delineated. Edge-enhancement is not evident in the transfer either, nonetheless giving the film a remarkably sharp look without the introduction of artifacts. The level of detail and the level of depth in the transfer is simply superb, with contrast ranging from the deepest blacks to the brightest highlights without distortion and without losing any of the shadow detail. In a word, this is a reference quality transfer.

The DVD features an audio mix that is just as impressive. Without any distortion or noise, the movie’s soundtrack is presented as a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix on the release, as well as a <$DS,Dolby Surround> mix. The track creates a very wide sound field with good spatial integration and good use of the surround channels. The bass extension is very good creating a good low end for the track. Dialogues are crystal clear – although Johnny Depp’s accent is often hard to understand – and look out for the impressive passing jet fighters soaring through your living room.
The DVD also features the original theatrical trailer for the film and it is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. The talent files are limited to filmographies, but there are some bonus trailers for Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron.

While watching "The Astronaut’s Wife" I found myself playing "Where did they steal that from?" But, at the same time, I also found myself being hypnotized by the visuals and eventually drawn into the story. Trust me, you’ve seen it all before, but probably never presented in this fashion. "The Astronaut’s Wife" is far from original, but it’s a fun movie, and if nothing else, a good guilty pleasure. Now, if the entire film had been about Johnny Depp’s accent, that would’ve been scary.