Monday, May 11, 2009

Cap'n Jack Sparrow in Outer Space

By Steve Evans

Every now and again I turn back the clock a few years to a forgotten film. Sometimes the movie has been forgotten with good reason. Today’s review covers one of those films, one of the lesser pictures in the canon of one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.

Johnny Depp enjoys tremendous success both as swashbuckling action hero in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and as a thought-provoking actor in such films as Neverland, Chocolat and reportedly in Michael Mann’s upcoming gangster flick, Public Enemies, in which Depp plays John Dillinger in pinstripes and fedora.

But it wasn’t so long ago that Depp’s film career seemed less than a sure thing. For every Edward Scissorhands, there was a dud like Nick of Time. His script choices were inscrutable, prompting some to speculate that Depp would just as soon slum for a paycheck as deliver a wow like his spot-on performance as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s mind-blowing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the Criterion two-disc edition is the one to buy).

Today we rewind to 1999 – the last great year for Hollywood film, but a not-so-good year for Johnny Depp:

The Astronaut’s Wife
Written and directed by: Rand Ravich
Starring Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton, Nick Cassavettes and Blair Brown.

The pitch: Rosemary’s Baby meets E.T. in this trashy exploitation flick apparently designed to scare the bejabbers out of pregnant women and bore everyone else.

Affecting a suthern accent, a bleach-blond Depp sleepwalks his way through the role of a shuttle astronaut who, while orbiting Earth, loses contact with NASA for two minutes. He returns to Florida…a changed man.

His wife, the lovely but bland Theron, senses something is wrong, even though she faithfully returns to her teaching job each day at the local elementary school. But all is not well. Depp’s fellow crewman, Cassavettes, in a glorified cameo, drops dead a week later at a party as his wife stares in horror. Did something happen to the astronauts during those two minutes of silence in space? Why, hell yes, we’ve got another 90 minutes to go.

[Side note Part I: Cassavettes apparently needed some quick cash to get on with his successful career as an independent filmmaker. He’s following in his dad’s footsteps: The late John Cassavettes also starred, from time to time, in some equally cheesy, low-rent movies (check out Two Minute Warning) to pay the bills in between his own independent projects. Side note Part II: the basic storyline of The Astronaut’s Wife was handled with much more suspense in The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and to about the same level of silliness as I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1955).]

Okay. At Cinema Uprising we would never reveal key plot points in a good movie: By the end of Act I, Cassavettes’ wife commits suicide, which does little to reassure Theron. Unfazed by all the sudden death, Depp picks the only sensible solution that can propel the plot – he quits his NASA job for a gig with a major engineering firm, packs up his wife, cuts out of Florida and moves to New York. This worries Theron even more, since she did the same thing with Keanu Reeves two years earlier in The Devil’s Advocate. In his new job, Depp designs amazingly complex aircraft for a military contract, raking in scads of green money. Pretty soon he’s kissing corporate ass at parties and doing an awkward bumpity-bump-hump-bump with his wife in public places. Next thing we know, Theron is taking a pregnancy test in the restroom stall at her new school. (As any would-be parent knows, those tests are supposed to be taken first thing in the morning. Or did Mrs. Astronaut drive all the way to work just to pee?)

Does it matter? Yes. In a movie already swollen with improbabilities, the incorrect administration of a pregnancy test might seem like a minor sin, but I disagree. People deserve more for their entertainment dollars than a movie that actively defies their intelligence. Worse, I’m appalled that a film would dare to exploit a woman’s greatest fear – that she might give birth to Webster.

Theron doesn’t have it quite so bad. The poor woman eventually gloms to the fact that she’s carrying twins. And Depp seems to take a preternaturally unusual interest in their safety. One of Depp’s former NASA associates tries to warn the expectant mommy that she’s carrying a heap o’ trouble, times two. Problem is, the doomsayer is played by Joe Morton, a character actor who gets killed in practically all his movies. Who’s going to believe him? Or the preposterous ending, with lousy special effects? And all this bidness going down while Theron acts like she’s swallowed enough Quaaludes that somebody ought to call poison control.

Right. Let’s wrap this:

  • Depp transforms into a cheap-looking special effect.
  • Theron gives birth to a couple of special twins.
  • There is at least one alternate ending on the DVD for anyone who cares.

Stoned, sedentary or fast asleep, The Astronaut’s Wife is a space cadet.

Rated R for language and uncomfortable-looking sex.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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