I recently watched The Astronaut’s Wife after not having seen it for ten years and I am happy to report that the film holds up extremely well. Mixing genre conventions is always a tricky business, but writer-director Rand Ravich manages to make the sci-fi/thriller hybrid work. Let’s start with the thriller conventions. Ravich wrings every ounce of suspense out of every story beat. This is screenwriting craft of the highest order. He is assisted by stellar (bad pun somewhat intended) cinematography. The last time a film’s camerawork sent me Googling for the cinematographer’s name, I was watching Prisoners and the DP was Roger Deakins. In this case, it’s Allen Daviau, who clearly put story and suspense-oriented thought into the framing, camera movement, lighting and color palette of every shot. The film’s characters and performances are equally impressive. Charlize Theron does a fantastic job with Jillian, a psychologically fragile, sympathetic character subject to self-doubt in a situation which provides ever fewer people she can trust. Is the loving wife having another mental breakdown or is she being gas-lighted? Ravich puts the classic thriller convention to excellent use here. And Johnny Depp does a fine job transitioning from the perfect husband to a ruthless alien. Which brings me to the science fiction aspects of the story. They are plausible enough and kept to a minimum, which permits the film to showcase its strengths. I should also mention that the sound design and editing are top-notch, adding to the suspense and driving home the occasional sci-fi/horror moment.
All that being said, I have one question: “Why didn’t the film perform at the box office?” I suspect that the film’s title and marketing campaign are responsible for the poor ticket sales. Genre hybrids are tough to sell, no question. But calling the film “The Astronaut’s Wife?!” Whose dim idea was that? It suggests neither “thriller” nor “sci-fi” so much as a daytime soap opera about a frustrated housewife who happens to be married to an astronaut. I’ve spoken to two cinephiles who never saw The Astronaut’s Wife because the title turned them off. It’s a shame because it’s a damn good film.