Published September 1, 1999
The Astronaut’s Wife, by Rand Ravich, is like the Alien movies in being a kind of mythologization of modern female insecurities about sex and childbearing. Commander Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp) is a mystery from the beginning. Apparently deeply attached to his wife, Jillian (Charlize Theron), to the point of uxoriousness, he is also very much a part of what looks like the macho NASA culture as it might have been 30 years ago but can hardly be now. He speaks with a soft Southern accent that is meant to suggest, beneath its oddly unembarrassed professions of affection, a hint of menace and a barely disguised bent towards plantation patriarchy.
The story goes like this. While Spencer and another astronaut called Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) are out for a space walk there is a moment of panic when they lose contact with mission control for two minutes. During that time both are mysteriously afflicted and returned to earth in a state of unconsciousness. The NASA higher-ups pretend that all is well when both men are apparently returned to health and their families, but Jillian, a woman with a history of mental illness, is intuitively certain that something catastrophic has happened and that the amiable Spencer is no longer the same man who was shot into orbit and who asked her what she was wearing on a space hookup with the whole world listening.
As so rarely happens in real life but always happens in the movies, Mrs Armacost’s paranoid doubts about her husband prove well-founded. Anyone who is surprised at this and, therefore, still might want to see the movie should stop reading now. For, sure enough, Spencer is not the same man he was before the mysterious two-minute break in his communication with earth and Jillian. A disgruntled NASA employee called Sherman Reese (Joe Morton) has discovered the truth and confirms that “He’s not your husband anymore, Mrs Armacost.” Reese informs her that during the break in communications aliens, transmitting themselves from distant galaxies as electronically coded radio waves, erased the tape (as it were) of Spencer’s mental existence and substituted the encoded data of their own, taking over his body for their inscrutable purposes.
So far so good. But then why should the higher-ups at NASA dismiss Reese as a nut case? Why should Spencer be offered a job with a mysterious billionaire defense contractor who is developing a new superweapon? Why are the powers of the earth as well as those of the aliens at Spencer’s disposal? Sadly, the answer seems to be that it is just force of habit. Regular movie-goers will know by now that those who wield power in government, business or the armed forces are always in league with the bad guys—on principle, presumably. Mr. Ravitch doesn’t even think he needs to explain their complicity in the alien designs on good-old Earth. Kids and lazy adult movie-goers—those who still go to movies, that is, will simply take it for granted.
The truth is, however, that Ravich has other fish to fry. His real concern is with building up the case for female paranoia. Jillian and Natalie Streck (Donna Murphy), both seem to know by womanly intuition that something ghastly has happened to their respective husbands in space. But how do they know? Because the men won’t share their feelings with them about it. “To go through that,” says Natalie, “and never talk about it? It’s bizarre.” To a man, it may not seem bizarre at all, but many a woman has doubtless thought the same about experiences that have been emotionally affecting to her husband. Few, however, can have had as much reason for their suspicion as Natalie and Jillian, in whom their now alien-husbands intend to plant alien seed. Soon they are both pregnant with twins.
Though doubtless sophisticated in other ways, the aliens who, in spite of being reduced to a pattern of radio waves, so effortlessly appropriate the lives of these two strapping American boys are unable to put anything over on their canny women. Both realize, on finding themselves impregnated (Jillian after a remarkably impersonal sexual experience in the arms of the hitherto attentive Spencer) that they are to be the mothers of monsters. When her husband dies (surely a negligence on the part of the parasitic aliens who have chosen him as their host?), Natalie electrocutes herself in the bath, thus putting an end not only to her own life but also to the (probably) sinister purposes of her twin fetuses. Take that, babies from hell!
Jillian, when she finds that the alien code has given Spencer superhuman powers to watch and control her, is not so fortunate. She attempts a Natalie-like solution but one which sensibly lights up hubby instead of herself. She can always get an abortion after his interdiction—typical controlling male of the patriarchal mold!—is out of the way. The aliens, however, don’t seem to mind the jolt of electricity and, apparently riding the lightning bolt, take the opportunity of Spencer’s demise to ground themselves in Jillian—and, of course, the twins. In the final scene, with her name and her hair changed, we watch her seeing her little ETs off to school and another Air Force pilot, all unwitting of his role in aiding the alien takeover, acting as step-dad. Perhaps this bizarre ending is meant to leave the door open for a sequel, but it plays havoc with the movie’s overall purpose, which is to suggest that women are from earth and men are from Alpha Centauri.