"Rosemary's Baby" gets an extraterrestrial twist in "The "Astronaut's Wife," an aggressively stylish but dramatically flaccid drama that plays like an upscale reprise of a '50s sci-fi potboiler. Top-flight work by professionals on both side of the camera can't quite disguise the predictability of the formulaic material.

“Rosemary’s Baby” gets an extraterrestrial twist in “The Astronaut’s Wife,” an aggressively stylish but dramatically flaccid drama that plays like an upscale reprise of a ’50s sci-fi potboiler. Top-flight work by professionals on both side of the camera can’t quite disguise the predictability of the formulaic material. And the bland title — perhaps more appropriate for a femme-skewing Lifetime feature — is no help. New Line obviously isn’t expecting much from this late-summer release, which opened Aug. 27 without benefit of press previews, and the studio isn’t likely to be accused of undue pessimism.

Sporting peroxided hair and a good-ol’-boy drawl, Johnny Depp stars as NASA shuttle pilot Spencer Armacost, a vet space jock who’s introduced during a pre-flight close encounter with Jillian (Charlize Theron), his beautiful schoolteacher wife. Out in space, Armacost and fellow astronaut Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) run into trouble during a routine repair of a malfunctioning satellite. Ground control loses contact with the pair for two minutes after the satellite explodes. Both men survive — albeit just barely — but are unconscious when they are brought back to Earth for long-term R&R.

Spencer is the first to fully recover, much to his loving wife’s relief. When he announces his decision to quit the space program and accept a private-sector job with a New York aerospace firm, Jillian takes the news as a mixed blessing. She’s sorry to leave her friends and students in Florida, but she’s not exactly distraught to know her husband will no longer be risking his life in outer space.

Things take a tragic turn at Spencer’s going-away party when Alex drops dead after a heated quarrel with his wife Natalie (Donna Murphy). The official cause of death, according to NASA officials, is “a severe insult to the brain.” (That’s a description of a stroke, not of the script.)

But Natalie hints that something much worse happened to her husband — and, through him, to her. “He’s hiding inside me,” she tearfully tells Jillian at a post-funeral reception. Before Jillian can learn more, however, Natalie commits suicide.

Working from his own script, novice feature helmer Rand Ravich continues to alternate between stylized abstraction and moody naturalism as he segues to Manhattan. Jillian befriends the blunt-spoken wife (Blair Brown) of Spencer’s new boss (Tom Noonan), but remains vaguely uneasy about life as a corporate exec’s wife. Her peace of mind is further undermined by what she views as strange behavior from her husband.

Jillian is surprised to learn that Spencer — hired for his marquee value as a national hero — is taking a role in designing a new fighter plane. She’s also unsettled, though not entirely displeased, by her husband’s increased lustiness.

Ravich waits until 40 minutes into “Astronaut’s Wife” before raising a shadow of doubt about Jillian’s perceptions. During a telephone conversation between Jillian and her youngster sister, Nan (Clea DuVall), the audience discovers that, following the death of her parents years earlier, Jillian experienced such terrible doom-laden dreams that she required psychiatric help. So the question arises: Is she just imagining things again?

It comes as no surprise that Jillian’s worst fears are entirely justified. Even so, “Astronaut’s Wife” does manage to generate mild suspense, especially after Jillian discovers she is pregnant with twins. Pic flirts with the notion that, like other pregnant women in her discussion group, Jillian feels increasingly isolated from her husband simply because he couldn’t possibly understand what she’s going through.

Trouble is, Spencer may know everything about what’s going on inside Jillian. At least, that’s the impression Jillian gets after viewing a cautionary videotape prepared by Sherman Reese (Joe Morton), a former NASA doctor who fully understands why Spencer is so eagerly awaiting the arrival of his offspring.

Convincingly maneuvering through a wide range of emotions, Theron hits the right balance of strong-willed resilience and moist-eyed vulnerability as Jillian. Her performance is more than compelling enough to sustain interest for long stretches when she’s the only person onscreen.

Depp is aptly ambiguous in what amounts to a supporting role, though he is hamstrung by his inability to upend audience expectations with any truly surprising twists of character. Morton is the standout among the supporting players, infusing urgency and credibility into a small but key part.

“The Astronaut’s Wife” tends to drift into a kind of dream state between dramatic high points, recalling the muted meanderings of “Meet Joe Black.” Quite often, Ravich relies heavily on his tech collaborators — most notably, lenser Allen Daviau and editors Steve Mirkovich and Tim Alverson — to jumpstart the intensity with visual flourishes. (A typically self-conscious touch: Jillian stands stock-still in a hallway of her school while students filmed with a speeded-up camera whiz by her.)

British actress Samantha Eggar adds to the mix of quirky affectations by playing Jillian’s obstetrician with a thick German accent. Why? Well, why not? When a pic is this unremarkably generic, every eccentricity helps.

The Astronaut's Wife

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Mad Chance production. Produced by Andrew Lazar. Executive producers, Mark Johnson, Brian Whitten, Donna Langley. Co-producer, Diana Pokorny. Directed, written by Rand Ravich.

With

Spencer Armacost - Johnny Depp Jillian Armacost - Charlize Theron Sherman Reese - Joe Morton Nan - Clea DuVall Natalie Streck - Donna Murphy Alex Streck - Nick Cassavetes Doctor - Samantha Eggar NASA Director - Gary Grubbs Shelly McLaren - Blair Brown Jackson McLaren - Tom Noonan
Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints), Allen Daviau; editors, Steve Mirkovich, Tim Alverson; production designer, Jan Roelfs; art director, Sarah Knowles; set designer, Randall Wilkins; set decorator, Leslie A. Pope; costume designer, Isis Mussenden; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Paul Ledford; assistant director, K.C. Colwell; associate producer, Jody Hedien. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown 290 Theater, Houston, Aug. 27, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

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