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Movie Review : Theron’s at the Controls in ‘Astronaut’s Wife’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rand Ravich’s “The Astronaut’s Wife” is a moderately diverting thriller that builds suspense and entertains effectively--but don’t ask any more of this sleek, costly production, whose strongest selling point is Charlize Theron.

Since her debut in “2 Days in the Valley” she’s appeared in a string of major features, but it’s surprising that so early on in her career she’s able to carry so big a picture with ease and finesse. The other surprise is that she is in fact the star, billing aside, with Johnny Depp her leading man in a role that places minimal demands on his protean talent. You can understand why Theron would be attracted to this project, but not how as adventuresome an actor as Depp would go for what is clearly a subordinate role.

In any event, Theron’s Jillian is a beautiful young Florida grade school teacher happily married to an astronaut, Spencer (Depp). While on a space shuttle mission with his fellow astronaut Alex (Nick Cassavetes), NASA loses contact with the men while they seemingly have lost consciousness themselves. They return safely, but Alex’s heart has been so severely strained by the mysterious mishap that he eventually succumbs to a violent seizure, with his benumbed wife (Donna Murphy) committing suicide soon afterward.

Spencer, however, has been pronounced perfectly healthy, and leaves NASA with a hero’s status for a cushy rocket-designing job at a major company in Manhattan, which allows the couple to move up to a lavish lifestyle. Jillian is less than thrilled with the move and its fancy trappings, but she’s game. However, she continues experiencing nightmares and senses that something may not be quite right with Spencer. Her worst suspicions are confirmed soon enough by the sudden appearance of Spencer’s distraught former colleague (Joe Morton) at NASA, which in effect has gotten rid of him because he’s voiced suspicions about Spencer, who may in fact be an alien on some sort of takeover mission.

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Very quickly Theron finds herself in the classic lady-in-distress predicament of realizing nobody could be expected to believe her, which means she must try to confront a mysterious, evil, destructive force all by herself. Theron makes Jillian and her predicament quite convincing while Depp moves from good ol’ boy to an increasingly cool and controlling presence.

In his feature debut, Ravich demonstrates some sense of how to build tension gradually. What “The Astronaut’s Wife” needed to lift it above the ordinary, however, is another layer of meaning. The film might have achieved that extra dimension if we were truly kept guessing whether the film would turn out to be a psychological thriller or a thriller of the supernatural. While we’re given to understand that Jillian experienced a breakdown after the death of her parents, Ravich makes it all too clear that Jillian isn’t crazy while Spencer truly is sinister. This handsome-looking film, which has a notable supporting cast that includes Samantha Eggar as Jillian’s patrician doctor, works up to a reasonably edgy if unsurprising finish.

“The Astronaut’s Wife” is not nearly as special as you suspect New Line was hoping it would be, but by no means is it as terrible as you expect most films opening sans previews to be.

* MPAA-rated: R, for violence, language and a strong scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: That strong scene of sexuality is marital sex so forceful as to verge on rape.

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‘The Astronaut’s Wife’

Johnny Depp: Spencer Armacost

Charlize Theron: Jillian Armacost

Joe Morton: Sherman Reese

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Clea DuVall: Nan

A New Line Cinema presentation. Writer-director Rand Ravich. Producer Andrew Lazar. Executive producers Mark Johnson, Brian Whittens, Donna Langley. Cinematographer Allen Daviau. Editors Steve Mirkovich, Tim Alverson. Music George S. Clinton. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Production designer Jan Roelfs. Art director Sarah Knowles. Set decorator Leslie A. Pope. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

In general release.


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