September 03, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Astronaut’s Wife, by first-time director Rand Ravich, is nothing but mood. Ravich envelops you in scenes of luxurious, foreboding quiet. My God, the movie is quiet: There are so many portentous pauses that, sitting in a theater on a Saturday afternoon, I was shushed by the person in front of me for the high-decibel crime of scribbling on my notepad. The film’s strategy is ”subtle” in an obvious way: The less that happens, the more we’re meant to suck in our breath.

We might have sucked in more of it, though, if there were greater novelty to the story of a Southern glamour-boy astronaut (Johnny Depp) who goes on a shuttle mission, gets lost in space for two enigmatic minutes, and then returns to earth, normal yet somehow changed. One night, after taking a corporate job in New York, he forcefully seduces his wife (Charlize Theron), she becomes pregnant, and… well, what’s growing in that womb is the big surprise.

Could it possibly be a demon space alien? I kept hoping that ”The Astronaut’s Wife” would turn into something more than a dutiful jumble of ”Rosemary’s Baby,” ”Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and ”Species II.” The movie is far from incompetent; it simply has too few surprises to justify its indulgent atmosphere of malignant revelation.

The actors do what they can. Depp, sporting blond highlights and an Elvis drawl, uses his stoic calm to hint at inhuman malice, and Charlize Theron offers her most vibrant performance yet. The suffering-pregnant-martyr role hasn’t done much for any actress since Mia Farrow, but Theron, with her marvelously expressive baby face, knows how to wallow in pain without drowning the audience in it. If we’re going to have actresses who look like supermodels, here’s one, at least, with the talent to set off emotional depth charges.

Rand Ravich
Clea DuVall
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