When The Astronaut’s Wife was released in 1999, Johnny Depp had yet to sail the seas as Captain Jack Sparrow. Charlize Theron had yet to win an Oscar (which she would do for 2003’s Monster). Both were already stars, with Depp especially being a critic’s darling. But they would each gain far greater popularity and success during the 13 years since The Astronaut’s Wife’s release. This is a very good thing for the film. While not nearly as bad of a sci-fi thriller as its critical reputation suggests, the strong performances by its two stars ensure a certain level of on-going interest. It’s still sort of a bush league Rosemary’s Baby, but writer-director Rand Ravich deserves a little more respect for his efforts here than he generally gets.
Commander Spencer Armacost (Depp) heads out to space for a mission with Captain Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) but something mysterious causes a two minute loss of communication between the astronauts and mission command. They both return home safely, but their wives soon notice strange personality changes. Alex’s wife Natalie (Donna Murphy) watches in horror as her husband drops dead of a massive stroke at a party intended to welcome the astronauts home. Spencer’s wife Jillian (Theron) is concerned about Spencer’s refusal to discuss what occurred during the two minutes in which contact was lost.
It’s a slow build from there, probably too slow for many viewers, as Jillian realizes just how different her husband is after the ill-fated mission. Her worries only worsen after she finds out she’s pregnant. Her intuition kicks into overdrive, causing her to go against her instincts and listen to the seemingly crazed former NASA official who has accosted her in public. She knew and liked Sherman (Joe Morton), but he now has some disturbing information for her, including audio tapes containing a bizarre, otherworldly static-sounding transmission during the two-minutes of radio silence.
Depp delivers a suavely convincing portrait of a changed man, with his moods veering sharply from genial to menacing. Theron carries the movie, however, in a seriously unnerving portrayal of a paranoia-induced mental breakdown. Anyone who might have, back in ’99, written her off as just another pretty face clearly wasn’t paying attention to performances like this one. Director Ravich takes his time allowing the suspicions, distrust, and ulterior motives to creep in little by little. This is more of a psychological thriller than anything else, and the mood is effectively uneasy. Ravich never quite explains exactly what the extra-terrestrial forces encountered by Spencer and Alex are trying to accomplish. But purely as a mood piece, the film works pretty well.