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Spaceman Film Review: A Sci-Fi Slog

Adam Sandler is in a spaceship, facing a giant spider, in the film Spaceman

Adam Sandler is the latest ‘lonely man in space thinking about things and getting sad’ in Johan Renck’s protracted and uninspiring Spaceman.

Eyebrows may have been raised by some (correction: everyone) when the first trailers for Spaceman showed a large spider-like creature talking to Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) on a spaceship. Surprisingly, however, this absurd juncture is probably the most interesting part of the film; Paul Dano’s (There Will Be Blood) soft-spoken, soothing voice is the perfect fit for what is one of the friendliest aliens we’ve ever seen in a film. Unfortunately, the rest of Spaceman is a slog. Sci-fi films where men get stuck alone somewhere or have deep, existential musings seem to be produced on an ever-moving conveyor belt, but where ones like The Martian embrace the comical aspects of its plot, Spaceman’s self-serious tone is just one of the reasons why it is such a failure.

Cosmonaut Jakub (Sandler) is six months into a solo mission to the edges of our solar system to collect mysterious ancient dust. When we first meet Jakub, the toll of his isolation has already taken effect, with his haggard face, mournful eyes, and distant persona. His relationship with his pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan, Wildlife), is suffering; it’s a disconnect that has built up over years, and not only because they are in the midst of the biggest long distance relationship ever. Seemingly from nowhere arrives Hanuš, the extraterrestrial spider (Dano) who has been enticed by Jakub’s depression and feels as if he can help him.

Based on the novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” by Jaroslav Kalfař, Spaceman becomes a generally uninspiring affair, with a screenplay stuffed full of clunky dialogue and recycled tropes of romance and sci-fi genres. Even James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), which saw Brad Pitt floating in space grappling with issues in similarly predictable fashion, crafted at least some form of intrigue in its existential reflections. In Spaceman, the journey just isn’t that interesting, and ultimately it becomes a protracted drama about sin and forgiveness. There are some promising aspects of Jakub and Lenka’s relationship, but they remain severely underexplored.

Carey Mulligan looks at Adam Sandler with affection in a still from the film Spaceman
Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan in a still from the film Spaceman (© 2023 Netflix, Inc. / Berlinale)

Colby Day’s screenplay takes a more compelling direction when Jakub realises that his relationship issues and general loneliness are self-inflicted and thus he is far from the victim, but he absolves himself very quickly, and this is further undone by a sensationally dumb ending where he seems to place more value on Hanuš’ life than those of Lenka and his unborn child. Sandler does well with what he is given here in really capturing the aching loneliness of Jakub, but even he can’t escape the eye-rolling nature of Spaceman’s overly long and dramatically dull conclusion.

The always floating camerawork is impressive, a strong reflection of the zero gravity atmosphere and suspended mental state that Jakub finds himself in. In contrast, the telepathic flashback scenes that Hanuš ignites in Jakub’s brain have a pointless warped effect, contributing to a severe ugliness to these heartfelt scenes. Max Richter’s original score—he also composed for Ad Astra—is as predictable as the rest of Spaceman, but it is still decent and does a good job of driving the drama forward.

It is surprising that Spaceman’s absurd premise is not the reason why it falls flat. Indeed, the friend-cum-psychiatrist Hanuš is probably the best part of it all. If you were able to treat Spaceman like a surreal, heartwarming comedy about two unlikely buddies in space, it would work better, but Day and director Johan Renck (Chernobyl) have other ideas. That already mentioned overly serious tone and the heavier themes of Spaceman make it clear that it is meant to be an ultra-moody, compellingly existential, and emotionally resounding drama. Unfortunately, it is lightyears away from being anything close to this.

Spaceman premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival and will be streaming on Netflix from March 1, 2024.

Spaceman (Netflix)
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