Sun, 27 Feb 2000

Prenatal jitters, paranoia plague 'The Astronaut's Wife'

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): Looks can really be deceiving. Take one look at Johnny Depp, and you will probably only see a good-looking, even- tempered man, especially considering all those lovable misfits he played onscreen. You would not guess that last year he actually attacked some photographers who wanted to take pictures of his newborn baby.

That must be the moral of The Astronaut's Wife, in which Depp plays good-looking, all-American astronaut Spencer Armacost. He is a celebrated hero, a brave space explorer who comes back safe and sound from a dangerous expedition in space. His schoolteacher wife, Jillian (Charlize Theron), could not be happier and more proud, welcoming Spencer's return after constantly worrying about his well-being. But her bliss soon turns into a nightmare as she gradually learns that her husband may not be the man she thought he was.

Anyone who follows this movie from beginning to end is given several reasons to join Jillian in her suspicions. One, Spencer does not want to talk to her about those two minutes when he and his colleague, Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes), were cut off from mission control when they are performing a routine space duty. Two, Alex develops some strange behavior, and soon both he and his wife Natalie (Donna Murphy) meet their tragic fate. Three, Spencer, who always told his wife how much he loved being an astronaut, suddenly decides to quit NASA and leave Florida for a rocket-designing job in New York City.

Reason number four occurs after the couple relocates to New York, in the form of Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), an edgy ex-NASA bureaucrat who stalks Jillian to show her the results of Spencer's physical tests after returning from space, which suggest something otherworldly is inside Jillian's husband. And the "strongest" reason of all: Jillian begins to have nightmares, telling her that her husband is one mean green mother from outer space.

The Astronaut's Wife is an obvious addition to the library of movies about extraterrestrial menace, which was filled earlier by the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Puppet Masters and Alien. It is also somewhat reminiscent of Deceived, that thriller starring Goldie Hawn, and a slew of films presenting the gnawing thought of what happens if someone very close to us, someone we love, turns out to be somebody we cannot trust, something evil.

Writer-director Rand Ravich, no stranger to the horror and suspense genre with his writing credit for Candyman, clearly means this directorial debut of his to be some kind of study on paranoia and fear. He makes us root for and side with Jillian, and with the help of cinematographer Allen Daviau's numerous close-ups of Theron and George S. Clinton's overwhelming score, we feel every bit of her apprehension, even though we know that nobody else in the movie shares her anxiety.

To crank up the suspense, Ravich comes up with the pregnancy scenario. Now the plot is not only driven by the question "Who is inside my husband?" but also "What is inside of me?" As a matter of fact, Jillian's pregnancy only clarifies the similarities between this movie and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. And Ravich went all the way, shaping his movie as some kind of tribute to that 1968 classic, down to Jillian's blond, close- cropped hair -- a mirror image of Mia Farrow's distraught heroine -- and the inclusion of Nick Cassavetes, the son of John Cassavetes, who played Farrow's husband in Rosemary's Baby.

But The Astronaut's Wife's resemblance to Rosemary's Baby is more a matter of imitation than inspiration. Ravich did bring us an effectively chilling movie, with all the uncertainties and suspicion woven in, and that curious screeching sound -- suggesting alien communication -- consistently heard in the audio track. But we never get that fright, that hair-raising, blood- curdling fright Polanski tailored for us three decades ago out of our own fear for the unknown. Ravich couldn't even come close, not especially with the film's unsatisfying climax. All we see at the end is the twin actors who played the bratty boy in Adam Sandler's lowbrow comedy Big Daddy. Uh-oh, doomsday is near.

If there is still a good reason to watch The Astronaut's Wife, it's probably Theron. Here she is basically repeating her role in The Devil's Advocate: a beautiful blonde from a sunny, southern state, who is taken by her spouse to dark, sinister New York, where she is practically driven over the edge. And, as in that movie, here she tries two different hair colors as well. But her earnest, commendable performance really evinces a talent crying out for better material.

As for Depp, whose star power this movie is obviously counting on, he's just playing a lazy, seemingly disturbed guy who sleepwalks through the entire movie. This is apparently one of his occasional, solely moneymaking ventures into Blockbuster Hollywood, one not unlike Nick of Time. He's apparently acting while his mind strays to other projects: the umpteenth film he's making for Tim Burton, another career-defining role to follow Donnie Brasco, or most probably, his new film by the real Polanski, the upcoming chiller The Ninth Gate.