THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE
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
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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