February 17, 2000

The Astronautís Wife (1999)
New Line Home Entertainment

110 mins. ∑ R
16x9 ∑ 1.85:1

Format
DVD

Audio
E

Subtitles
English

Extras
Theatrical trailer, Filmographies

Starring
Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Nick Cassavetes

Review by
Guido Henkel


Rating



(1999)

I like movies that come from the "What if?" or the "Wouldnít 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, "Wouldnít it be cool if a guy could slide down a stairway banister and shoot everyone in sight?" The result, John Wooís "Hard Boiled." (Of course, Iím only imagining that this is the origin of the film. My apologies to Mr. Woo.) The film "The Astronautís Wife" asks the question, "What if íRosemaryís Babyí had come from outer space by way of íSpecies 2í?" 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 heís not talking about. NASA scientist Sherman Reese ("T2"ís Joe Morton) approaches Jillian with some disturbing information about the shuttle mission and Spencerís 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 thereís no one that she can trust and that she must take matters into her own hands.

"The Astronautís 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. Itís 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 arenít that many original movies made these days, but "The Astronautís Wife" blatantly borrows from "Rosemaryís Baby" (even down to Charlize Theronís "Mia Farrow haircut"), "Species 2", "The Devilís Advocate" (hasnít Theron moved to New York City and been unhappy with success before? ...hmmm), and "The Unborn". Only in the last five minutes, with the filmís very shocking conclusion (I truly didnít see that one coming), does the film come into itís 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 Jillianís womb until the very end.

What Randís film lacks in story, it certainly makes up for in its cinematic appeal. The movie is full of dream-like images, with Randís camera zooming in close to reveal intimate details (Theronís 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 Astronautís Wife" which are open to interpretation by the viewer. Another interesting visual aspect of the film is the production design and the costuming. While Randís 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.

Randís 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 Spencerís 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 Videoís DVD of "The Astronautís Wife" is devoid of their usual special features, but nonetheless gives us a nice copy of the film. The movie is presented in an anamorphic widescreen and is 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 movieís soundtrack is presented as a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital mix on the release, as well as a 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 Deppís 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 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 Astronautís 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, youíve seen it all before, but probably never presented in this fashion. "The Astronautís Wife" is far from original, but itís a fun movie, and if nothing else, a good guilty pleasure. Now, if the entire film had been about Johnny Deppís accent, that wouldíve been scary.

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