By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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It’s hardly an occasion for melancholy, but Hollywood, to a startling degree, really fudged the millennium this year. I mean, where were the Y2K disaster thrillers? The nutzoid fundamentalist parables of spaceship Earth?

As it turns out, the closest the movies of 1999 may come to conjuring a millennial vibe is the shock current of supernatural horror that’s now coursing through the zeitgeist. Audiences who are lining up for The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project don’t just want to be goosed. They want to get spooked into believing — into seeing a mystical next world that shapes and mirrors ours. It’s the dance of the real and the unreal that creates that shivery frisson of pleasure. The Blair Witch Project psychs you into perceiving a mirage of terror within its secular electro-videotape facade, and The Sixth Sense, a cleverly orchestrated hodgepodge of The Shining and Ghost, never stops opening trapdoors to the possibilities beyond.

There are doors opened, as well, in Stir of Echoes and The Astronaut’s Wife, two late-summer chillers that brim with omens and macabre twinkles: flash cuts from the dark side. Neither film relies on cheap jolts — at least, not too many of them. Both display an eager desire to disturb your sleep. Yet they both face skeptical audiences who, by now, have endured enough scare tactics at the multiplex to want their minds toyed with in intricate and deceptive new ways. These movies, despite fits of creepiness, are more like nightmare reruns.

In Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon, all sinewy and proled out, is Tom Witzky, a Chicago telephone lineman, married with a young son, who begins to lose his sanity — or so he thinks — after he playfully lets himself be hypnotized at a neighborhood keg party. From that moment forward, he is haunted by visions of an eerie, gruesome cataclysm (a bloody incisor, a clawing hand, the world seen as a crimson X ray) that come ripping into his mind’s eye like images from a bad acid trip. Dominating these visions is the spectre of a teenage girl: lost and pale white, her black-rimmed eyes shining with ”Help me!” paranoia. She looks like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the resemblance has the effect of both priming and dampening our anticipation. The film seems to be setting us up for some nasty business indeed, yet we can’t help but wonder if it’s going to be been-there-slaughtered-that.

Tom, it seems, isn’t the only one with second sight. His little boy, Jake (Zachary David Cope), converses quite casually with an unseen presence. The snazziest thing in the movie is the way the kid stares into the camera, so that the audience literally shares the point of view of the uncanny. This kid who talks to ghosts invevitably recalls The Sixth Sense (the spirits here also bring frost to the air), and the coincidental motif, I’m afraid, doesn’t favor the new film. There are purplish incidents of criminality and violence as well, most of which aren’t nearly as gripping as they’re meant to be. Take, for instance, the babysitter who comes over to the Witzkys’ home to look after Jake and, in a rather overwrought scene, kidnaps the boy after she’s heard his otherworldly conversations. Or the high school football star who whips out a gun and puts it to use.

After a while, we barely need a fortune-teller to play connect-the-dots with these events. Stir of Echoes offers tricky fragmentation without mystery or mood; it’s a mosaic of fear that grows less and less unsettling as it comes together. The movie is based on a 1958 novel by Richard Matheson, and the director, David Koepp (whose screenplays include Jurassic Park), can’t do much to render material that might have seemed an exotically sinister head game four decades ago anything more than borderline banal now. In the end, the movie’s vague title seems all too appropriate. It offers a stir of an echo of horror, rather than the genuine cathartic article.

The Astronaut’s Wife, by contrast, is nothing but mood. The first-time director, Rand 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. Stir of Echoes: C+ The Astronaut’s Wife: C+

Stir of Echoes

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