Chain Reaction and The Astronaut's Wife

Anthony G Williams

Films: Chain Reaction (1996), and The Astronaut's Wife (1999)

The synopsis of Chain Reaction sounded promising: the development of a source of virtually free and clean energy (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in a self-sustaining reaction) sparks all manner of consequences. It isn't hard to imagine what these might be: a big shift in geopolitics, with the oil states losing much of their importance and wealth (although not all, by any means - oil is still used for other purposes, e.g. making plastics); the big oil companies fighting a rearguard action and trying to kill or at least delay the idea while diversifying frantically; the green energy movement having the wind taken out of their sails. So I looked forward to an interesting couple of hours.

Sadly, it was not to be. There was a brief mention of the problems which free energy might cause to the oil companies and the economy, before the film slid into the familiar comfort zone of a conspiracy theory (for control of the invention) and a protracted chase across the winter countryside as a pair of young scientists (Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz) try to escape capture. It isn't a bad film, just a disappointing missed opportunity, and barely SF at all.

The Astronaut's Wife is in a different league. Two NASA astronauts on a routine space-walk are unexpectedly cut-off from communications for two minutes. When they return to Earth they seem to be normal, but one of them subsequently dies in mysterious circumstances. The other (Johnny Depp) is healthy but his wife (Charlize Theron) becomes increasingly concerned about his behaviour, especially when a former NASA employee (Joe Morton) contacts her with evidence which makes her question what happened to the astronauts - and what is happening to her.

The basic idea of this film reminded me somewhat of John Wyndham's 1950s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (which will be a give-away to those familiar with it!), although the plot takes a different direction. The story is well-constructed and filmed, the initial feeling of moodiness and mild spookiness gradually developing into horror as the tension climbs sky-high, and the acting (from Theron in particular) is excellent.

I was very impressed, and encouraged by this evidence that Hollywood studios could make a really good adult SFF movie if they tried. Then I looked up The Astronaut's Wife on Wiki and found that it had been a critical and (more importantly) commercial flop, the box office takings being little more than a quarter of the budget. Which maybe helps to explain why Hollywood usually doesn't produce such films, preferring to dumb down for the predictable teenage market, with lots of recycled ideas involving spectacular chases and explosions. Plus at least one superhero. Or vampires. Or zombies. Or some combination of all of those. Sad.


(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)