The Astronaut's Wife
Rating -

Sci-Fi Thriller (US); 1999; Rated R; 109 Minutes

Johnny Depp: Spencer Armacost
Charlize Theron: Jillian Armacost
Joe Morton: Sherman Reese
Clea DuVall: Nan
Donna Murphy: Natalie Streck

Produced by Jody Hedien, Mark Johnson, Donna Langley, Andrew Lazar, Diana Pokorny and Brian Witten; Directed and screenwritten by Rand Ravich

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Perhaps the biggest virtue that "The Astronaut's Wife" carries is the fact that it breaks from an orthodox motion picture mold--one in which the studios release their movies without the privilege of critics, such as myself, getting advanced screenings. Recent evidence of this typical act suggests that filmmakers are at last resort with saving their products from financial failure; products such as "The Avengers," the "Psycho" remake, and "Virus" are just to name a few, and each one is made up of flaws so deep that not even their creators could ignore them. Even though this has not always been the case with motion pictures (in the 1960s, Hitchcock preferred to release his movies without screenings for the benefit of saving the surprises), today's cinematic events released without those advanced privileges almost always mean catastrophe. At this point, every movie that follows in this manner will be associated with disaster.

"The Astronaut's Wife" is one of those 'anti-critics' productions, a movie where we as film reviewers were forced to see it opening weekend like all the other moviegoers. It's hard to see why, though; the picture, while not always the most clever piece of filmmaking, is still pretty topnotch in most aspects. An inclusive part of the viewer is carried into the setup by vivid occurrences, and instead of wasting their energy on lifeless convictions, it pays them off in moderate, often successful ways. There is, for instance, a congenial performance by Charlize Theron, who was one of those principle positive aspects in "The Devil's Advocate" and "Mighty Joe Young." Here, she plays the wife of a successful astronaut named Spencer (Johnny Depp), whose recent trip into space takes a drastic turn when there's a sudden explosion, and Houston loses contact with the ship for two minutes, before it unexpectedly returns to Earth. Theron's character, Jillian, leisurely becomes unsettled by her husband's voyage. But until she winds up pregnant with twins, her ears are deaf to the warning signs of others, who speak to her with utter assurance--"he's not your husband anymore."

The movie plays along with a "Species II"-style formula, in which the focus is a character who may or may not be inhabited by an unearthly entity. Spencer is a reputable man back on his planet Earth, but his latest journey into the vast outer space is greeted with concern more than enthusiasm, especially after his partner, another notable shuttle-craft superstar, has a massive stroke and dies. Spencer's attitude and personality have not changed, at first, but his wife's sudden pregnancy is only the beginning of a long list of unusual developments that arrive after his return.

Watching these events unfold is a satisfying experience, most notably because the filmmakers aren't dependent on visual effects to attain tense atmosphere. Their strength is in a well-paced psychological development, as Jillian's pregnancy develops and we begin wondering if they are normal human infants or alien life forms. The answers, of course, are in Spencer, but Johnny Depp, soon to be seen in Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," approaches his role in an effortless way. He only shows expression in tense moments, while the rest of the time remaining focused but emotionally distant. When characters start comparing the "old" Spencer to the "new" Spencer, emphasizing on little characteristics that divide them both, we feel out of place. Depp comes off more as a weird, detached human individual rather than a half man/half alien being. And since the movie only concentrates on his character after the space incident, we as the audience cannot compare his new habits to his old habits as the characters often do.

But were we expecting a miracle here? I don't think so. Judging by the fact that no critics were permitted to advanced showings, people were sure that the film was going to be complete trash upon its arrival, which it is not. The production fails in certain areas, but succeeds in most of the others. Take this as hard evidence that movies without advanced showings will not always be totally worthless.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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