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THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE

by: Scott Renshaw

In this summer of uniquely adult suspense fare like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE SIXTH SENSE, THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE initially seems like a promising companion piece. Writer/director Rand Ravich's tale begins with blissfully happy couple Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp) and his wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) sharing a tender moment before Spencer's latest mission as a shuttle astronaut. That mission goes awry, however, sending Spencer and a fellow astronaut home unconscious after an unexplained communications failure during a spacewalk. Both men initially seem to come through the experience fine, but Jillian slowly begins to sense something amiss with Spencer after they move to New York City. She's even more troubled once she becomes pregnant with twins, and a former colleague of Spencer's (Joe Morton) shows up with some disturbing information.

There's certainly an aura of familiarity to the story, but that almost seems to work for the build-up of suspense. Charlize Theron's Mia Farrow-circa-ROSEMARY'S BABY hairstyle hardly seems coincidental, much like the mere casting of Theron after THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (Theron characters clearly need to stop moving to New York, encountering sinister forces and going insane). Everything about THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE aims for an ever-growing sense of menace -- Ravich's odd camera angles, time-lapses and slow motions; cinematographer Allen Daviau's murky photography; production designer Jan Roelfs' sterile interiors. Technically, there's a lot to like about THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE and the way it keeps a viewer unsteady and uneasy.

As a narrative however, nearly everything seems just ever-so-slightly off. The film feels like it starts too late, eventually revealing crucial pieces of Armacost family history that really should have been shown to us. Individual scenes flow smoothly, but the transitions between them are awkward and abrupt. Characters who seem like they should play a much more significant role flit in and out of the story inconsistently. Ravich doesn't seem entirely in control of the pace, letting the film ooze along eerily without ever knowing where to crank it up or tone it down. The familiar "devil inside" plot elements are played deadly straight, creating the impression that Ravich is taking his story far too seriously. Even the key moments of exposition drift by so deliberately they're gone before you have a chance to register that they might be important. THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE spends 106 minutes convincing you that it's just about to turn into something compelling, then never does.

The performances and characters are certainly a significant part of the problem. Like the rest of the story, the characters feel incomplete. Depp plays the post-close encounter Spencer with a disquieting flatness, but we see too little of Spencer the good guy to make the transition unsettling. Theron has already proven in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE that she knows how to play frantic and tormented, but again there's a back-story missing from her performance (though it's dropped into the dialogue). Even the usually reliable Joe Morton is left adrift when his NASA operative turns up as an unshaven wacko with no sense of how he became one. Ravich keeps building THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE as though the plight of the characters is going to elevate the genre story, when ultimately the characters don't mean a thing.

I must admit that I was startled to find THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE remotely watchable when it appeared without preview screenings. The look of the film is nearly enough, combined with Theron's haunted stares, to make it linger in your head for a while. It just doesn't deliver on the most basic level, leaving you itchy and unsatisfied as though you had just watched a film that wasn't quite finished yet. There are too many other, better choices for viewers who want a little substance with their chills. After you get through a

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