Treated and Released: The Astronaut's Wife (Aug. 27, 1999)
If you know me, you know that I absolutely love some astronaut thrillers. I maintain love for Gravity, even if a lot of folks seem to retroactively hate it after it got so much hype at the time. I liked Interstellar. I loved The Martian, comedy or not. I’m typically an easy sell on these movies, and it’s been a good couple of years with one of them cropping up every October. It’s a good month for them; October is an untapped resource for this specific genre because these movies are too claustrophobic and tense for the summer, and too bombastic and effects-heavy for the awards season. In the fall, they provide an edge-of-your-seat thrill to those of us who can’t stomach the way typical horror movies are shot/written/acted/regurgitated into cynical oblivion sometimes.
The movie in question, The Astronaut’s Wife, would definitely do well in an October release. The elevator pitch is “Rosemary’s Baby with a sci-fi angle,” as Johnny Depp’s aloof death-stare (re: possibly his bored look while waiting for his haberdasher to arrive) is appropriated by an alien being that is hell-bent on impregnating the titular wife, played with increasing desperation by Charlize Theron. So there’s a tiny bit of space peril, there’s possession, there’s an Omen-style conspiracy to perpetuate evil offspring to some sinister end. And the end result is a movie without anything inherently idiotic about it.
Except for its August release date.
New Line must have had some tepid test screenings or an executive that didn’t care for the dailies being sent his way, because the pre-Lord of the Rings studio pushed out The Astronaut’s Wife on Aug. 27 with no advanced press screenings and opposite a bloated and imbalanced set of new releases and summer holdouts. Among them were the much bigger dud The 13th Warrior, an overblown period action set piece with too little action, and a hopeful return from the Roberts/Gere pairing with Runaway Bride. See? All over the map, that August was. The space-possession movie was roundly dismissed by most critics, who decried the glacial pacing and generic plot. Theron was given due credit for carrying a movie practically single-handed, and so early in her career, whereas Depp was called out by some for a lack of energy or subtlety.
Audiences agreed with the critics, and voted with their pocketbooks. The movie opened at No. 9 to a $4 million weekend, and grossed a worldwide total of $19 million off a ridiculous $70 million budget. Keep in mind, that’s for a two-hour “meaningful glances” thriller with about five minutes of space travel effects and a climactic showdown in an apartment bathroom. Depp gallivanted back to his Tim Burton comfort zone, while Theron languished in cheap garbage like Reindeer Games and occasionally got to work in somewhat classier stuff like The Cider House Rules and Men of Honor. These days, Theron's name is on the shortlist for seemingly every single high-profile project from flashy action rides to somber character studies. She deserves it, because she's great. Depp is doing just fine, don't worry about him. He spends twenty grand a month on wine, or so the Internet keeps telling me. He'll be fine. But his career is starting to devolve into a rinse-and-repeat of big Disney flops, uninspired Burton leftovers, stupid hats, and Kevin Smith's Canadian horror cheapies. That's not a knock on Smith, really, but it's a real blow to Depp, who seems to be in his Island of Dr. Moreau phase of a lifelong Marlon Brando LARP session.
Screenwriter and rookie director Rand Ravich, who got his start writing the script for a Candyman sequel, never helmed another movie again. Instead, he’s been the creator of several fledgling television projects, most notably cop-procedural “Life” starring Damian Lewis. That wasn't a bad show, either. I wish him well.
I want to stop for a moment and acknowledge that 1999 was a strange year for thrillers and the horror genre. First off, the October releases consisted of romance films and sports comedies, with only the eye-rolling remake of House on Haunted Hill representing spook-taculars for the entire month. That was probably cagey on the part of the big studios, as the late summer of 1999 was dominated by two of the biggest blockbusters of the year and they happened to both be low-budget indie horror-thrillers: The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. Point in fact, when The Astronaut’s Wife was released on Aug. 27, M. Night Shyamalan’s lauded ghost story won the weekend with $20 million, and that was the fourth week of its release. Similarly, the original found footage crock-umentary even beat Johnny Depp as an alien, scoring $4.2 million in its seventh week, bringing it up to a total of $128 million off a $6,000 budget.
So, extenuating circumstances to say the least. But it begs the question, what would have benefited The Astronaut’s Wife more? The August release in the middle of the Artisan and Miramax party, or somewhere in mid-October versus Superstar, Three to Tango, or Mystery, Alaska? I submit the latter would have scared up a little more dough just on the basis of counter-programming. Or, rather, counter-counter-programming.
In the end, what really killed this movie was not so much the release date as the irresponsible budget. In 1999, $70 million was not a paltry sum to make a movie. That is why this movie rates as one of the biggest box office bombs in recent decades. But if the movie had come out opposite that truly wretched remake of an old Vincent Price joint, it might have been recognized for its better features. It’s an entirely forgettable film, and with the lack of fireworks anywhere and a 110-minute runtime it is the very definition of a potboiler. But I forgive the lack of ingenuity put forth by a first-time director/screenwriter who managed to seal in a lot of effective mood and a standout performance from an actress the world wasn’t quite ready for.