"The Astronaut's Wife"

When you're dealing with Johnny Depp's demon spawn, who needs special effects to find childbirth scary?

By Charles Taylor
Published August 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's tempting to see Charlize Theron's roles in "Devil's Advocate,"
as a lawyer's wife who moves to New York and comes unhinged, and her role
in "The Astronaut's Wife," as an astronaut's wife who moves to New York and thinks she might be coming unhinged, as a metaphor for what happens when you move to New York. It makes you wonder what would happen if
these characters moved into the real New York, rather than the one in these movies -- unpopulated streets and apartments whose cost probably equals the gross
national product of a small country. (The apartment in "The Astronaut's Wife" is a
humdinger, a mix of the mahogany paneling that movies use to signal
"money" and steely gray high-tech design that makes the kitchen look like
an antiseptic bio lab.)

But the writer-director of "The Astronaut's Wife" has other metaphorical
fish to fry. This combo of "I Married a Monster From Outer Space" and
"Rosemary's Baby" actually has a potentially potent scare-movie idea behind
it: a pregnant woman's fears of feeling completely cut off from her husband,
and of having to face the ordeal that comes from what he
planted inside her. Theron's husband, Johnny Depp, is a NASA flyboy
whose Shuttle mission undergoes a glitch. He and his partner are doing a
repair job outside the craft when NASA loses contact with them for
two minutes. Brought back to Earth in an emergency landing, Depp decides
to quit the agency and accept a job with an aeronautics firm in Manhattan.
Shortly after moving there, Theron, who already feels out of place in the big
city, becomes pregnant and begins to suspect her husband is -- all together
now -- Not What He Seems.

For a movie that's already being treated like a turkey -- the releasing
company, New Line, opened it without benefit of press screenings, a sure
sign that a studio has no faith in a picture -- "The Astronaut's Wife" is far
from unwatchable. It's not a good movie but at least, on its own schlocky
terms, the story makes sense (which is a lot more than you can say for
Sixth Sense"
). The trouble is that it never amounts to much. Ravich's
pacing is off. The movie's deliberate momentum never achieves the rising
and falling waves of suspense that are one of the chief pleasures of horror
movies. And because all the action takes place on the same unvaried level,
the scares never build, though Ravich does deserve some credit for
avoiding the yuckiness that's usually typical of bio-horror movies. A
woman's fears of childbirth are strong enough; they don't need to be
whipped up by special effects. (And no special effects could compete with the
enormous, startling close-ups of actual childbirth that Catherine Breillat
uses in her upcoming "Romance.")

Ravich does have some sense of visual menace. Early on there's a knockout
prolonged shot of Theron, seen in black outline, standing in front of a giant
video monitor watching her husband's landing. (All of her tension is
summed up in the gentle rocking of the landing, seen from a pilot's
point-of-view.) And Ravich's disconcerting, almost abstract close-ups of
Theron's hands or lips captures something of how her body is becoming
foreign to her. Too much of Ravich's visuals, though -- pointless circling
shots, mixtures of fast and normal motion -- depend on a kind of
characterless advertising slickness. And though there's a bit of wicked
humor in some of the casting -- oddball actor Tom Noonan as Depp's
captain-of-industry boss (his shaven head makes him look like the giant
from "Twin Peaks") and the star of David Cronenberg's "The Brood," Samantha Eggar, as Theron's OB-GYN -- the movie is

Ravich does less well by the actors. As Theron's sister, Clea DuVall (the
wonderfully sullen kid from "The Faculty") has nothing to do, and Depp,
sporting a blond-tinged brush cut and the same aviator sunglasses Dennis
Quaid wore in "The Right Stuff," mostly hovers in the background
glowering (though his honey-dripping Southern accent is amusing). There's
some good acting from Joe Morton as the NASA official who suspects
something is wrong with Depp. At first, he's as reliably dull as usual, but in
his later scenes, unshaven, shaky and paranoid, he brings the movie its only
urgency and suspense.

The biggest crime of "The Astronaut's Wife" is that it's yet another waste of
Charlize Theron. One of current movies' true stunners, Theron is a
pleasure to watch, with her big bright eyes, full cheeks and statuesque
bearing. The way her short tousled hair clings to her skull gives it an almost
sculptural beauty. Theron's best moment is when she sambas around her
kitchen, spraying Redi-Whip into her mouth as her cute pregnant tum
peeks over a pair of leggings. Nothing she does is bad, it's the role that's a
dud. Theron is one of those actresses who seems to have direct access to her
emotions; she doesn't have to do much to get you on her side. But she's
never gotten the role that would let those emotions run the gamut, or bring
out the hell-raising comic suggested by the early scenes of "Devil's
Advocate" or her small role in "Celebrity." In one scene Depp reminds her
of how he quieted her fears about his mission by promising to bring her back
a little bit of heaven. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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