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THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE
Starring: Johnny Depp
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Rating: Rated R for violence & language.
Video Release: 8 February 2000
Tagline: "Imagine the face of terror is the one you love."
Better to let you know now, instead of sitting through 109 minutes of New Line Cinema's The Astronaut's Wife to come to that conclusion on your own. Not that an advanced screening is written somewhere in stone but when a major studio production isn't screened for the critics [prior to its release] there's usually a reason why.
Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping "word of mouth" would spread the news of this sci-fi suspense thriller starring Johnny Depp (Spencer Armacost) and Charlize Theron (wife, Jillian). The only problem with word of mouth is that it's a double edge sword; cuts both ways.
More on that later. First, the film.
The Astronaut's Wife features Spencer and Jill as the All-American couple -- he, a heroic NASA pilot and she, a loved elementary school teacher. We barely get situated in our seat for the opening sequence catapults us into the heavens as Spencer and fellow astronaut Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) are sent into orbit to repair a damaged satellite. Distress overcomes their two wives as NASA reports an explosion in which communication is lost between the shuttle and ground control for a total of two minutes. NASA aborts the mission and brings the astronauts back to earth where they are hailed as heroes. Though Spencer appears physically and mentally fit, Alex battles a series of neurological problems but is eventually given a clean bill of health as well. His wife, Natalie (Donna Murphy), isn't so sure and begins to question Alex's growing erratic behavior, noting what only a spouse would -- that he's not the same man.
Without compromising the plot, there are some "complications" to Alex and Natalie's health. Spencer, soon after his release from the hospital, decides to resign from NASA and pursue a career in the private sector with a firm in New York. The couple move from The Sunshine State to the Big Apple and several weeks pass when Jill discovers she's carrying twins. Spencer's behavior, never the same since his return to earth, has Jill growing uneasy and finds herself questioning his unusual "link" with her unborn babies. When she is forced to face the shocking truth about her husband, her twins, and the accident in space she must find a way to break free from Spencer's master plan.
Visually well shot, The Astronaut's Wife has a polished, professional look mixed with a gripping audio track that heightens the tension. While it holds your attention (as you hold onto the edge of your seat) one doesn't have to look too far to see the similarities of: Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and Theron's clone role in The Devil's Advocate. Not to play the comparison game but the simple fact is -- this film adds nothing new to the "invasion of the body snatchers" formula (to catch phrase another similar film).
Though the theme of replication is prominent in the above films, it is not the primary focus of this tale. What's really at the heart of this story is the couple's relationship and how it changes after Spencer returns from space. Depp embraces his calmly menacing role with a backwoods accent and cool stare who prefers to charge his long distance calls (from earth's orbit) to the American taxpayer. His metamorphosis from devoted husband to hostile stranger occurs fairly quickly, so we never get to know the "real" Spencer. This premature transformation makes it rather difficult to warrant any care for his character or for the trauma Jill undergoes when trying to find out what has happened to him.
While The Astronaut's Wife had a compelling start, which continued to build steam through the majority of the film, its outcome faltered atrociously. In an attempt to mask a misguided twist (which sports some pretentious special effects) the climatic conclusion is neither credible nor satisfying, leaving the viewer feeling cheated and betrayed.
This goes back to "word of mouth" being a double edge sword. The opening week for The Astronaut's Wife brought in a paltry $4 million for the film, which proceeded to hit the $10 million mark by it's third week out. After that, the word of mouth factor played heavily against the film as the next seven weeks saw the film recover only another $700,000. Sure, $11 million is quite a tidy sum but when you're budget is $34 million, some studio exec has just swallowed a mighty big pill. Perhaps New Line will pull a 'Spencer phone scam' in making the hapless moviegoer pay the price -- by raising future ticket prices.
What started out as a 3, tanked out into a big dud of a 1.
© Terrence J. Brady
The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).