The Johnny Depp Archive

The Astronaut's Wife (1999)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton, Nick Cassavetes, Donna Murphy

Directed by: Rand Ravich

Rating: 1 2 3

'Houston, we have a turkey.' This was the critics' general consensus when The Astronaut's Wife was released in 1995. But you know what? I didn't think it was that bad at all.

Johnny Depp as Spencer Armacost in The Astronaut's Wife

Like Nick of Time, The Astronaut's Wife is an unlikely Johnny vehicle. He plays an astronaut called Spencer Armacost (nuff said, really). Whilst up in space, he and his colleague, Captain Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) lose contact with earth for two minutes. Both men survive, yet on their return to earth are curiously reticent about their experiences, much to the concern of their wives, Jillian (Charlize Theron) and Natalie (Donna Murphy). Next thing, Spencer's decided he no longer wants to be an astronaut, an accepts a position as an executive at an aeronautical company building fighter planes, which necessitates a move to New York. But just before they leave, Alex drops dead from a massive stroke and Natalie commits suicide by electrocuting herself in the bath. Ouch.

Once we get to New York, we find ourselves in familiar Devil's Advocate territory (that film where hotshot young lawyer Keanu Reeves goes to work for the devil, Al Pacino, much to the distress of his wife. Charlize Theron). As Spencer throws himself into his new job, Jillian finds herself at home in their huge and father nasty modern apartment with waaay too much time on her hands. And is it just her, or is Spencer acting kinda weird.?

After a steamy and slightly unpleasant sex scene, Jillian finds herself pregnant, with twins. Plagued by nightmares and unsettled by the uncontrollable changes taking place in her body, Jillian is further upset when Spencer's former NASA colleague, Sherman Reese, shows up, claiming that her husband's medical tests show considerable differences before and after the loss of contact in space. And remember Natalie, who killed herself? She was pregnant too. with twins.

Oooh, Rosemary's Baby in space! For a few moments we stumble around in my favourite grey area, the murky area where reality and fantasy collide, or in this case, paranoia and mental illness and the alien supernatural. Has Spencer really been replaced by an alien, or are Jillian and Mr Reese losing their minds? After all, Jillian has confessed to her sympathetic doctor that she has a history of depression and has been known to hallucinate about dead people, and Mr Reese has been sacked from NASA for coming up with implausible theories.

Charlize Theron and Johnny Depp in The Astronaut's Wife

Sadly, this fascinating ambiguity doesn't last nearly long enough: Spencer is an alien. (Not a spoiler by the way - it's written on the back of the DVD box.) It becomes kinda obvious when his eyes start twitching like a robot and we realise he can communicate with his creepy unborn offspring via high frequency radio waves. So God help poor Jillian when she tries to take a pill to abort the scary foetuses, because Spencer ain't about to let her.

A pretty cool idea then - just a shame we've seen it all before. Remember The Sphere, where Sharon Stone and Samuel L Jackson go into an alien glowing ball thing and come out different and weird? Or Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, where aliens take over the bodies of those we know and love. And then there are all those monster baby films of the 1960s and '70s: The Omen, The Demon Seed and of course, Rosemary's Baby.

There are many clear parallels between The Astronaut's Wife and Roman Polanski's seminal horror classic (Charlize Theron's Mia Farrow style Vidal Sassoon haircut being an obvious starter). Like Rosemary's Baby, The Astronaut's Wife taps into archetypal fears about losing control (whether this be NASA's loss of control over their technology or Jillian's fears about the changes taking place in her body) and about the omnipresence of evil: it can be anywhere, even inside the one we love. And like the Terminator films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and God knows how many other robot movies, The Astronaut's Wife also sounds a warning against the dangers of technology, in this case mankind's quest to invade and conquer outer space, which lay us open to attack by dark, unknown forces.

At home with Commander and Mrs Armacost in their nasty modern flat

But whilst Rosemary's Baby brilliantly captures some of society's greatest fears and distils them into one hell of a movie (haha), The Astronaut's Wife is just, well, quite good. Johnny looks gorgeous as the sinister evil alien clone (even if his tattoos have been rather unconvincingly Photoshopped out) but it's not a part that exactly stretches his thespian abilities. Charlize Theron is okay but Jillian is a bit of a dreary, wearisome heroine, constantly weeping (in fact she gives EastEnders' Sonia a run for her money in the red-eyed, puffy-faced, proper-all-out bawling stakes) or staring off into space and conducting all her conversations in a barely audible whisper, and it's hard to sympathise with her as you do with Rosemary.

On the plus side, however, the eerie soundtrack creates an effective atmosphere of unease, whilst the claustrophobic modern New York sets reflect well Jillian's isolation in technological hell.

Definitely a slow burner (and a bit too slow in places), the film nevertheless succeeds in building up a credible sense of tension and anticipation, even though you suspect the ending is probably going to be a bit of a let down. In fact the DVD release features two endings (which I won't give away). Given the choice I think I'd take the original ending, as it's slightly more credible, but both are actually better than I thought they would be. As is the film as a whole - 'Houston, we have a serviceable sci-fi horror thriller that's really quite good.'

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