I've always deeply enjoyed Rand Ravich's 'The Astronaut's Wife.' Critics lambasted it upon release, and it found itself a buried catalog obscurity in Warner's ever-growing archive. With this Blu-ray release of the film, I'm given the chance to once again experience a very cerebral slow burner of a sci-fi thriller, and I can say I enjoy the film even more now than I did years ago. In fact, I'm seeing things in the film that open the door for deeper analysis, as there's a story within this story that can make for a very interesting alternative way to take in this flick. Mind you, it's not as mind-bending as 'Mrs. Doubtfire' recut into a horror film or, poor taste as it may be, 'Schindler's List' as a romantic comedy, but this flick is written in a manner that leaves the door open for a few ways to interpret the entire plot line and premise, if one so chooses.
The story in this 1999 (the best year in cinema!) flick is an exquisite example of layers of depth hidden beneath straight forward simplicity. Two astronauts (Johnny Depp as Spencer Armacost, Nick Cassavetes as Alex Streck) have their lives changed on their most recent mission, as they're repairing satellites in orbit, when NASA loses contact with the pair for two minutes. They've trained for every possibility, so why did this explosion scare them so much? Jillian Armacost (Charlize Theron) has her suspicions, and with a former NASA employee (Joe Morton as Sherman Reese) in her ear, she believes that something truly extraordinary and possibly sinister happened to her husband, the same thing that happened to the Streck household before great tragedy struck them from this Earth. Removed from her social circle and familiar haunts due to a change in Spencer's occupation moving the couple to New York, Jillian questions her husband's every move, as she works to unravel the mystery placed before her.
'The Astronaut's Wife' is a tale of alien-slash-supernatural possession on its surface. We know this due to Reese's ramblings about the potential for sending codes across the universe as a way of transporting an organism. However, beneath the obvious layer of deception and invasion lies another possible story, one that doesn't even require a "reach" to make work, one that makes for a much more human drama: Jillian Armacost isn't just paranoid...she's insane.
We learn through anecdotal evidence that Spencer's wife has had a hard past, including a very dark period where she wasn't herself. Her sister (Clea DuVall) tries to keep her strong (as she reinforces to her sister what a great man she has by disparaging her own), but soon finds herself removed from the equation when the Armacosts move up north. We see a woman growing increasingly paranoid, potentially hearing things and sensing things that aren't there. She has visions of herself committing suicide the same way one of the Strecks did. She's constantly on edge, easily startled, and clearly isn't fitting into her new, high pressure big city environment. Every single moment with Jillian, we see reasons to possibly diagnose her, as the case is made convincingly that she's nuts. This is Ravich's way of showing why others will discount her theories about her husband, but this added depth to the film about our titular character makes the entire experience make more sense. It doesn't so much matter anymore whether or not Spencer is a host, as she's clearly gone off the deep end.
This flick succeeds for a number of reasons. First off, there are actors putting out some of their best performances. Depp is a delight here, his subtle changes in mood quite possibly the sign of the truth inside him or even how Jillian perceives him with more and more doubt. He's not over-the-top like in recent years, providing a believable, interesting turn. Theron is equally believable, her portrayal of a decaying mental and physical health is a credit to the future Academy Award winner. DuVall puts out her most human performance to date, even if the role is stinted, while Morton provides a solid catalyst, a man who was once in control but now has seriously lost it. Additionally, the slow pacing and attention to detail enraptures a viewer far more than it alienates them, much like in the equally mental analysis 'Meet Joe Black.'
'The Astronaut's Wife' doesn't have spectacular effects; they've dated quite horribly. It doesn't have signs of a mega-budget and has hardly caught on with the home video or cable TV cult audience. It deserves more attention, though. This simple analysis of a marriage under extraordinary circumstances is far from boring, and provides a very suspenseful finale, a rational conclusion no matter how you view the film. Ravich hasn't written or directed a film since, and it's a shame. There is real thoroughness and complexity in this easy to follow dramatic picture, and even if it's a massive box office bomb (barely making 25 percent of the cost back domestically), it deserves great praise.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Warner brings 'The Astronaut's Wife' to Blu-ray on a Region free BD25 disc. There are no annoying content loads, and the menu itself features a static shot (the same as the cover of this release) alongside a basic audio loop.
Almost forgotten, mostly underrated film obscurities don't often get fancy new masters. Keep that in mind when watching 'The Astronaut's Wife' on Blu-ray, as this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is barely passable. Aside from low quality stock footage for launch sequences, the disc is uniform in appearance, and that isn't a good thing with a bar set so low. Colors are often murky and flat. Whites have an issue with cleanliness in most shots, while bright colors, like the ruby red lipstick in the dinner party sequence, appear too bright to be realistic against their drab settings. Blacks sometimes have a bit of a blueish tinge to them, and noise pops up from time to time. I'm also concerned about the grain in this release. There are moments when facial features get particularly blurry, as do the outlines of a hand here and there that look smeared to the point that the boundaries of skin and the objects they touch can be indistinguishable. DNR? Entirely possible.
The audio for 'The Astronuat's Wife' fares much better than the video, with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that sounds years ahead of its time. Bass is present lightly in the atmosphere and score elements, and in the launch (the rocket and the sex scene) there's a believable rumble and ripple to put you in the same area, and the rocket sequence sets the rears on fire. Busy rooms have that light ambience added in al channels, giving a more realistic bustle whenever applicable, though exterior crowds in NYC are somewhat dead. Additionally, some of the effects (like a lone siren in the left rear) localize and prioritize juuuust right, enough so that you'll wonder why the ambulance turned off when you pause the film. Dialogue on this track sometimes suffers from a bruntness and some static, mostly in the teaching scenes, though all other lines are easy to discern.
The lone extra in this package (not even listed on the back art) is the Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 min) for the film.
'The Astronaut's Wife' bombed in theaters, was forgotten and abandoned on DVD, and now comes to Blu-ray to hopefully garner a new audience to see how interesting this dramatic thriller really is. Depp and Theron don't have blistering chemistry, but their dedication to the roles allows us to believe them in them, making for a solid cinematic escape. The video on this Blu-ray is somewhat troubled, but the audio is a winner. Extras aren't even listed on the packaging, and what little is there doesn't amount for much since it can be viewed online any darned time. On strength of film alone this one is worth a look, though on disc's merits, it's only worth a rental.