Adam Sandler as an astronaut is in a spaceship.

Film Review: Spaceman


Director: Johan Renck

Tango Entertainment and Free Association
Streaming on Netflix 03.01

There are a few phrases that you never except to find yourself writing as a film critic, such as “there aren’t a lot of Marvel movies coming out this year,” “the camera movement in this Michael Bay movie is so elegant and understated,” or in the case of Spaceman, “Adam Sandler takes himself far too seriously.”

During a research mission at the outer reaches of the solar system, a solitary Czechoslovakian cosmonaut named Jakub Procházka (Sandler) is nearing the objective of his mission: a cluster of mysterious particles known as the Chopra Cloud, when he is hit with the troubling realization that the marriage he left behind on Earth may be over. While he’s been desperately trying to get a message to his wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman, Maestro) through mission control, she’s not responding and he didn’t leave her on the best of terms. Jakub’s feelings of helplessness and isolation are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a talking space spider hiding within the depths of his craft. Whether the creature is real or a figment of his imagination is unclear to Jakub, though he quickly accepts its presence and names it Hanuš, who assumes the role of researcher/therapist. Together, Jakub and Hanuš (voiced by Paul Dano, The Batman, The Fabelmans) begin an existential journey, peeling back the layers of Jakub’s psyche and studying his life experiences in hopes of finding the underlying reasons for his loneliness. Hanuš seeks to reconcile two people who were light years apart even when they were together on Earth. 

In some ways, Spaceman plays like a bizarre hybrid of Solaris and Charlotte’s Web (I was half expecting to see Hanuš save Jakub’s marriage by writing the words “Some Cosmonaut”), yet that makes it sound deceptively lively. Director Johan Renck (Chernobyl) certainly sets the mood well enough, with the bleak, claustrophobic melancholy of Jakub’s existence clearly established in the first scene through long takes and minimalist lighting. The prospect of sharing this lonely journey with an interesting character on a mission into the unknown is tantalizing for cerebral science fiction fans. The only problem is that Jakub isn’t interesting or even complex. He’s just self-absorbed and self-pitying, driven by a desire to redeem a family name tarnished by his Communist informant father; this seems to be his primary motivation for journeying into space, rather than an actual interest in interstellar exploration. The defining attribute of the character is that he doesn’t care, whether it’s about his mission or his marriage, and this makes it rather difficult to care about him. As Hanuš uses his spidey sense to create visions of Jakub’s memories and thoughts, which we observe from the outside looking in, that feeling of being shut out permeates the whole film. As we listen to Jakub, Hanuš and Lenka all drone on about how Jakub’s loneliness is of his own making, depressing underscoring, muted colors and watery filters attempt to convince the audiences that we’re watching art. Spaceman feels too on the nose and condescending to get any particular credit for insights on human nature, yet the approach is so pretentious and self important that there’s little entertainment value.

Sandler gives a strong central performance, committing fully to the character and his despair. It’s a powerful reminder of just how good the Happy Gilmore and Murder Mystery star can be when he’s playing it straight, yet at times it starts to feel as if proving that he can do so is taking precedence over creating an engaging character. Mulligan easily manages to make Lenka sympathetic and real, though she’s less successful at being appealing or endearing enough make us feel invested in her story. The only one with any charisma is Hanuš, and while Dano manages to make the rather silly presence of this clinically observant arachnid play better than it should, there’s still a constant feeling that this character is better suited to a dark comedy instead of a drama.

Spaceman is suffering from all of the same weaknesses as its protagonist, and it’s far more focused on trying to prove itself than it is on connecting with audiences. The determination to be viewed as a serious-minded art house movie comes at the expense of telling an engaging story with anything new to say, and only the performances and the short run time kept me from bowing out early. It’s a mildly noteworthy footnote to the careers of its major players and an earnest yet puzzling failure, though that’s hardly a strong incentive to sit through it. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more sci-fi film reviews here:
Film Review: Dune: Part Two
Sundance Film Review: Love Me