Rated R - Running Time: 1:49 - Released 8/27/99

Let's see: some astronauts have a mysterious, harrowing experience while on a mission; they return home looking normal but having actually undergone a radical change. Haven't we seen this premise before?

Even if we hadn't, The Astronaut's Wife is a poor execution of the concept. Written and directed by Rand Ravich, the film stars Johnny Depp in one of his most flat, featureless roles yet, and Charlize Theron in the exact same part she played in The Devil's Advocate. Theron impressed me immensely in that film, playing the tortured wife of Keanu Reeves (an unenviable position for anyone). But her role here is so similar I wonder if she just dusted off her old notes.

After a mission which almost killed astronauts Spencer Armacost (Depp) and Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) during a routine extravehicular activity, NASA declares the two men "heroes" and throws a big party for them. No one really knows what occurred during the two minutes of lost radio contact, and the two aren't talking about it, but weird things start happening. First Alex dies mysteriously. Then his wife commits suicide. Then Spencer, who always said he would be an astronaut forever, quits NASA and takes a desk job for a company that designs military aircraft. Spencer's wife Jillian (Theron), who has suffered from disturbing visions since her mother died, starts seeing herself as a corpse.

Soon Jillian discovers she's pregnant, and you'd think that would cheer her up, wouldn't you? But no. She is contacted by former NASA man Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), who is convinced that during the fateful two minutes, something took over the bodies of the two men and her husband is not really her husband anymore. Jillian doesn't want to believe him, especially since he's recently been fired from NASA for spouting such ideas, but she can't argue when he guesses (correctly) that she's expecting twins. You see, Reese knows that when Streck's wife killed herself, she was pregnant with twins, too. Shazam.

So Jillian must decide whether the two unborn babies currently residing in her womb are in fact products of the man she loves or the offspring of the vile thing that killed him. And Spencer, who hasn't been himself since the day he touched down on the tarmac, is not helping her come to the happy conclusion.

As the title implies, this story is about Jillian, not Spencer. Theron is obviously the star, and she is adequately panicky for the role. But after her part in The Devil's Advocate, where she was a panicky wife seeing visions and not getting any sympathy from her formerly passionate husband, it's like watching Sylvester Stallone in a new film called Ricky, about a come-from- behind boxer from Philadelphia. Theron fails to distance herself from the previous role, and director Ravich fails to make her do so. Meanwhile, Depp, who shined in Edward Scizzorhands and Ed Wood, is like a cardboard cutout here. Part of the failure is in Ravich's script, for not showing us enough of a difference in Spencer's former self and his new alien personality. The loving relationship between the two, so vitally important to make his transition visible, is touched on in the few scenes we see before the mission. But not nearly enough.

The film features good supporting performances by Morton and also Clea DuVall as Jillian's sister Nan. But they're not on screen long enough to save The Astronaut's Wife from its inevitable fate as a video shelf-warmer and a sci-fi also-ran. **½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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