The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Directed by: Rand Ravich | 109 minutes | drama, science fiction | Actors: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton, Clea DuVall, Donna Murphy, Nick Cassavetes, Samantha Eggar, Gary Grubbs, Blair Brown, Tom Noonan, Tom O’Brien, Lucy Lin, Michael Crider, Jacob Stein, Timothy Wicker, Sarah Dampf, Charles Lanyer
She is South Africa’s most successful export: Charlize Theron. The blonde started out as a model and ballerina, and her talent and ambitions soon took her to Europe and the US. She was part of the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in New York when a persistent knee injury put a premature end to her dancing career. Her mother thought that a career as an actress would also be something for Charlize, and gave her a one-way flight to Los Angeles as a gift. After she had gone to all kinds of agencies in vain looking for an acting job, the South African was finally discovered. In a place where she hadn’t expected it; at the bank. Her mother had sent her a check for $500, but the cashing in was not without a struggle because the “foreign” check was not accepted. Charlize kicked a scene in the bank, where a talent hunter just happened to be present. He handed her his card, on the condition that she lose her strong African accent. She managed to do that by watching soap operas. After some extra roles, she finally broke through in 1996, with roles in films such as ‘That Thing You Do’ (1996), ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ (1997) and ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1998), earned an Oscar for her role in ‘Monster’ (2003) and became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood.
One of those films from the early years of Theron’s career is ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’ from 1999. Not necessarily a film she’s proud of probably, because writer/director Rand Ravich couldn’t make it into the exciting science-fiction/horror film. who it could have been. ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’ has common ground with many similar films – ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978) and ‘Species’ (1995) are the first to come to mind – but where many such films go big, ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’ it literally close to home. Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp) is an astronaut who is sent into space for a routine job on a space shuttle. His wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) is, as always, worried about his fate. That’s why Spencer always calls her from space to reassure her. But then she sees on the news that Spencer and his colleague Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes, indeed the son of) have been involved in a freak accident. Jillian and Alex’s wife Natalie (Donna Murphy) are expected immediately at NASA, where official Sherman Reese (Joe Morton) informs them that their husbands survived the incident and are recovering. It turns out that Spencer and Alex were involved in an explosion outside the shuttle and lost contact with the mother station for two minutes.
When the men are allowed to leave the hospital, everything seems to be back to normal. For a while at least. But they have certainly changed. Spencer decides to trade NASA for an office job in New York. At his farewell party, Alex suddenly becomes unwell and dies. Just a few days later, his wife, who seems to have lost her way and claims to hear strange noises, also end her life. The events seem to have little effect on Spencer, but Jillian wonders what really happened during those two minutes in space and becomes more and more captivated by the mystery.
On paper ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’ is interesting and captivating enough, but the reality shows a very different picture. The approach of Rand Ravich, who made his directorial debut with this film, is rather unbalanced to say the least. After a nice start, the film gets stuck in endless circles around the hot mess. The viewer has long recognized the fork – Spencer hasn’t been himself since his return to Earth – but Jillian doesn’t see that or doesn’t want to see it and continues to wander like a headless chicken. With a past of depression, Ravich tries to create a side track, but the observant film viewer already knows that this is a dead end. Incidentally, Theron with a short head puts her best foot forward; that the part (and not just hers) is poorly written is not her fault. Ravich makes several remarkable choices from a stylistic point of view; most striking is the scene where Jillian is about to end her pregnancy early on a pill, but can’t. Theron is good enough as an actress to subtly express that doubt, but the director makes her scream hysterically at her own reflection, literally drowning out the entire effect of the scene. In addition, the dialogues are often very bad and Ravich comes up with a ridiculous finale, which wipes the last speck of benefit of the doubt off the table in one go.
How can you screw up a theoretically good concept? Rand Ravich shows that with ‘The Astronaut’s Wife’. Great actors like Theron and Depp don’t know what to do with the bad dialogues, the pace of the film is completely out of balance and the ending hits the mark. A small bright spot is that the camera work is stylishly done, with a creative shot here and there that shows that Ravich has it in him somehow. In addition, the still young Charlize Theron, even in a ramshackle role like this one, jumps off the screen. Even more than the much more experienced Johnny Depp, she knows how to draw attention to herself and brighten up this weak film a bit.