Okay, if we concede there are aliens out there (and we might as well), we’re still left with the question, What do they want from us? “Die,” answered the E.T. with admirable straightforwardness in Independence Day. But the intergalactic travellers in the somber and preposterous The Astronaut’s Wife have more sinister things in mind: They want to KNOCK UP OUR WOMEN! Yes, the Weekly World News has been right all along. Lock up your daughters, and don’t let any of them marry an astronaut.
Johnny Depp, in a rare check-cashing performance (you’d have to go back to 1995’s Nick of Time to find him this boring), is hotshot astronaut Spencer Armacost, who along with a partner (Nick Cassavetes) is repairing the exterior panels of a shuttle out in space when something strange happens. NASA loses contact with the men for two minutes, and when they come back down to Earth they won’t, or can’t, talk about what happened. Spencer’s wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) is happy to have Spencer home safe; her relief blinds her, at first, to the ways in which her husband has changed. Once proud to be a high-flyer, Spencer retires from service and accepts an offer at some corporation working on a special plane for use in high-tech warfare. The new job is in New York, which Spencer always used to hate. It’s not long before we begin to suspect that Spencer isn’t Spencer any more, though it takes Jillian a lot longer to figure it out.
Making his feature debut, writer-director Rand Ravich goes about his grim business as if assembling a particularly moody car commercial. The result, thanks to the great cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.), is easy on the eyes, but the filmmaking is of the hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director school, with many, many circling overhead shots, and without the playfulness and vigor that an inspired show-off like Brian De Palma could bring to it. The Astronaut’s Wife isn’t any fun, and it drags along while we watch Jillian sink deeper and deeper into her predicament. For instance, Jillian discovers she’s pregnant, and an ultrasound determines that she’s carrying twins — which means something ominous, I think, but I’ve already forgotten what. The situation, not to mention Charlize Theron’s unflattering pixie haircut, explicitly recalls Roman Polanski’s paranoid masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby, but that film had an infinitely more colorful cast of characters and an undercurrent of diabolical wit. This movie has nothing except a vague biological dread: What exactly is Jillian carrying inside her? And why does Spencer, or whatever he is, seem so intent on the babies’ well-being?
The movie wastes an interesting cast of likable character actors: Blair Brown and Tom Noonan as Spencer’s new benefactors, Joe Morton as a NASA man desperate to tell Jillian the truth, Clea DuVall as Jillian’s sister, Donna Murphy as a woman stricken with grief over the fate of her husband. But generally, this is the sort of coldhearted movie that sets up a vulnerable heroine and then picks off everyone around her who can help her; don’t bother getting too attached to most of the characters.
Theron acts up a storm; it’s basically her movie, and she’s appealing in a fragile way, but the mechanics of the plot end up making her look like a sap. As for Depp, there were times when I thought I was watching Val Kilmer, and most of the time you could be watching just about anyone else in the role. A mild Southern drawl is about all Depp brings to the party, and Ravich uses him like a masked heavy in a slasher film. Jillian turns around — gasp! — he’s there. Jillian sneaks out to meet someone who can help her — eek! — he’s there again. He’s so consistently everywhere that I expected to learn that the aliens had cloned him, but no, he just has that horror-movie knack of being wherever he needs to be, whenever he needs to be there.
The Astronaut’s Wife builds sputteringly to a climax involving running water, a radio, and an alien that looks like the aquatic E.T.s in The Abyss crossed with an octopus. It also boasts what I call the wrong kind of bleak ending. I have nothing against unhappy endings, but they have to be prepared for, and we have to be prepared for them, even in subtle ways we don’t recognize until after the movie is over (see The Sixth Sense). But the ending of The Astronaut’s Wife leaves you with nothing; all of Jillian’s agony and terror amount to nothing, and all of our suffering while watching her suffering means nothing. (If this is why they needed reshoots, I’d hate to see the original ending.) The movie is a high-toned grind, and if you manage to develop any emotional connection to the heroine, it isn’t repaid — it’s thrown back in your face. The Astronaut’s Wife isn’t so much chilling as pointlessly unpleasant and mean-spirited.