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Saturday, Feb. 26, 2000

'THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE'

Honey, I'm home . . . I think


What's your image of the astronaut's wife? Hollywood has never been too flattering to this quarter -- the wives are usually prim, serious and full of thoughts as firm as the perms that cover their heads, wearing the sort of clothes that even Doris Day would have burned eventually. (See "The Right Stuff," "Apollo 13.")

In one stroke, "The Astronaut's Wife" (released in Japan as "Noise") drastically changes the landscape and puts astronaut's wives smack on the map of glam femme contenders. Goodbye to frumpiness and forced smiles that say: "Oh yes, I'm so proud of my husband." This is an astronaut's wife who can inspire a whole runway collection, with the naughty title of say, "Space Wifey."

Charlize Theron ("Celebrity"), the definitive, look-at-her-and-die blonde, plays the wife, which puts a lid on all arguments as far as I'm concerned. And with Johnny Depp playing the astronaut, it's likely that NASA is laying the ground for a major image overhaul. It's about time.

Directed by Rand Ravitch ("The Maker"), "The Astronaut's Wife" pours on the heavy psychology while drawing from the old tale (or fantasy) about a husband who comes back from a trip as a changed man. Spencer (Depp) and Jillian (Theron) Armacost are a successful and devoted couple living in Florida. One day, Spencer as space shuttle commander goes on a mission with his buddy Capt. Streck (Nick Cassavetes). But something goes awry and there is an unexplained two minutes during which all communications shut down. Still, the two astronauts make it back to Earth, much to the teary relief of their wives.

Then Jillian notices discrepancies in her husband's character. Before she can put a name to her suspicions, Streck dies under mysterious circumstances and his wife (Donna Murphy) kills herself in the shower clutching a radio.

The radio seems to have some of the answers -- apparently Streck always had it on, tuned into nothing but static. Spencer too, is listening to static in the night. It's not until NASA staffer Sherman Reese (Joe Morton) shows up to confirm her worst fears that Jillian can induce herself to take action. This is not just against Spencer, but also the twin babies with which she has become pregnant. Are they her beloved Spencer's children or belonging to the alien impostor masquerading as her husband?

Depp and Theron both score in delicately nuanced performances that rely more on facial expressions than spoken words. Jillian's mounting fears reveal themselves in her trembling eyelashes, anxious eyes and spasms of misery that distort her chiseled features. As for Depp, he deserves an award for being the first badass astronaut in Hollywood history.

There he is, with a ghost of a smirk lurking on his lips, a stamp of evil on his retina: extraterrestrial malice packaged in a Brooks Brothers suit. He's so gorgeous, in fact, that Jillian finds it hard to resist his sweet assurances about everything being all right. You can't blame her. If you were married to Johnny Depp and he came home from a business trip a little different but just as attentive and loving as before, would you blow the whistle on him? Me neither.

There's another star to this ensemble and that's Jan Roelfs' production design. Partly to bring out Theron's cold Scandinavian beauty and partly to enhance the outer-space ambience, Roelfs sets the scenes in shades of gray, blue and black. The Armacosts' apartment, for example, is submerged in black and blue tones, with Theron padding around in blue striped shirts. Roelfs also creates a queasy sense of lifelessness that defines each scene, as if to warn us that no matter where the story is now, eventually everything is headed toward death.

The picture also puts a new face on what has become the old creatures-from-outer-space genre. Not once is the word "extraterrestrial" used. In fact, the issue rarely comes up in conversation at all. Neither are we forced to see whatever version of Martians are en vogue at the moment. No action, no guns, not even the cathartic soar of a rocket launch (the windowpanes in the Armacost apartment shudder on take-off and that's it).

The whole story hangs on the fear of the unknown in outer space, and the near-certainty that the unknown is malevolent. Until the end, the audience only knows it as a presence, whose language seems as trivial and indecipherable as radio static.

"The Astronaut's Wife" is playing at Shinjuku Tokyu and other theaters.


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