The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) ***½
I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was not an old-fashioned 50’s-style alien paranoia movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
As you might gather from the title, the story more closely resembles that of the latter film. Spencer Armicost (Johnny Depp) is at home on what will be his last night on Earth for a while. Tomorrow, he is to embark on the space shuttle Victory on a mission to repair a malfunctioning satellite. As always, his wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) is a little worried about him, but she has no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary, and to her, the flight seems just as routine as it does to her husband. But we know better, don’t we? A couple of days after the launch, a NASA functionary named Reese (Joe Morton, of The Brother from Another Planet) comes to the Armicost house to pick Jillian up. It seems that, as Armicost and his commanding officer, Captain Streck (The Wraith’s Nick Cassavetes), were working on the satellite, there was some kind of accident. The two astronauts were out of contact with mission control, and with their own ship, for some two minutes, and they were brought back onboard unconscious. The doctors who examine them after they are brought down conclude that Arimicost is in no real danger, but that Streck may be in some trouble, as he is rather older, and whatever happened seems to have put some strain on his heart. What is more important for the rest of the movie is that nobody really knows what went wrong. Some kind of explosion, sure, but why?
Both men recover, but they seem to have been changed by their experience. Neither ever talks about what happened to them, both appear unusually randy, Armicost announces that he is resigning from the space program, and there’s something just slightly off about their behavior generally. Things really begin to go wrong at Armicost’s going-away party, when Streck dies of a massive stroke. The next day, his wife tells Jillian that it was “they” that killed him, that “they” talked constantly to him, but he couldn’t understand what “they” said. She then tells Jillian, “He’s hiding inside me,” and passes out. A little while later, she electrocutes herself in the shower with the clock radio that “they” were apparently using to send messages to Streck.
But people have lives to run, and the Armicosts move to New York City, where Spencer gets a job with a big-time aerospace firm which turns out to have a contract with the federal government to develop a fully automated fighter plane that uses electromagnetic pulses, like those resulting from nuclear explosions, as weapons. Jillian gets her own job teaching second grade, and makes friends with the wife of one of Spencer’s co-workers. Spencer, however, is getting more and more unlike himself. He really throws himself into his job, despite the fact that he characterizes it as “corporate bullshit,” and he comes to seem like he wants to control Jillian, especially after it comes out that she is pregnant with twins.
Re-enter Reese. He’s been fired from NASA because of the highly unorthodox convictions that now lead him to seek out Jillian. Reese, you see, had been looking through Streck’s and Armicost’s files, and he had noticed some very strange things. After the incident in orbit, for example, both men’s signatures changed subtly. The official explanation of what happened up there doesn’t seem too convincing, either. As the voice recorders in their helmets revealed, something scared both men shitless. Reese rightly points out that these are men who are thoroughly trained to deal explosions or malfunctions or anything else that might be expected to come up. Whatever scared Streck and Armicost that badly cannot have been something they had trained for. And then there’s the third track on the tape from the voice recorders. It’s too high-pitched for humans to hear, but Reese ran it through a pitch shifter, and whatever it is, it is not the static that NASA’s analysts say it is. And whatever it is, Jillian has been hearing it on the radio and in her dreams ever since she got pregnant. As for the pregnancy, when Mrs. Streck killed herself, the autopsy revealed that she had been pregnant too. With twins. Just like Jillian.
Over the remaining course of the movie, Jillian becomes increasingly convinced that Spencer has been replaced by an alien, that her children are thus aliens, too, and that somehow, everything is connected to that super-fighter Spencer’s company is developing. At the same time, all the other characters become increasingly convinced that Jillian is losing her mind. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d done that. You see, after Jillian’s parents died, she went a little nuts, and started having hallucinations in which people she knew would be walking around dead. This is the real strength of the movie, here. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that all of the stuff about aliens is just window dressing, and that, at its core, The Astronaut’s Wife is about the dilema of a person who probably is clinically paranoid, but who is, for once, absolutely right about there being people out to get her. I’d rather not say any more about the story; from here on out, it gets tense, and you’re not going to feel the tension if I tell you what’s coming.
I would, however, like to say a few words about Johnny Depp. I never saw most of his early films, largely because “21 Jump Street,” his awful teenage cop show on Fox, had scared me away. And on the basis of Cry Baby, which I did see, I was probably right to avoid those movies. I tell you, though, things have changed big-time. Ever since he starred in Ed Wood, Depp has not failed once to astound me. You see, most of the time, I don’t much like movies with big-name actors; I find the presence of major stars distracting. My ability to suspend disbelief generally decreases in inverse proportion to the fame of the actors involved. I don’t have this problem with Depp’s movies, though. Take this one, for instance, and compare it to Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Cry Baby. With most big stars, if you watch four of their movies, you realize that after the second one, at best, you’re not thinking in terms of the characters, but rather of the actor himself. It doesn’t matter what role he’s playing, Arnold Schwarzenegger is, first and foremost, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bruce Willis is, first and foremost, Bruce Willis. Tom Cruise is, first and foremost, Tom Cruise. And Keanu Reeves is never, under any circumstances, anybody but Keanu Reeves. With Depp, this just isn’t the case. Mind you, he wasn’t a bit convincing in Cry Baby, but in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that may as well really have been Hunter S. Thompson on the screen. The same thing goes for The Astronaut’s Wife; Depp becomes Spencer Armicost, and when you watch the movie, you don’t see the actor at all-- the character is all that exists. This, people, is what acting is about. Turning yourself into the character you’re portraying. That Johnny Depp can still do that when he’s as famous as Jesus Christ is just fucking incredible.