Spaceman review: Adam Sandler's Netflix drama fails to achieve liftoff

Adam Sandler in Spaceman
Adam Sandler in Spaceman
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There are more nuanced and no doubt just as accurate ways of describing Spaceman than “the Adam Sandler Netflix flick where the actor talks with a giant spider about loneliness for close to two hours.” In the end, though, such a logline is arguably a fitting way to describe Johan Renck’s dour, self-serious adaptation of Jaroslav Kalfař’s philosophically minded novel, Spaceman Of Bohemia. And while others may find in this visually arresting outer space drama a probing meditation on grief and marriage (not to mention human alienation writ-large), I never did warm up to this Colby Day-penned character study, finding it much too caught up in its own ambitions to make its emotional beats pay off.

Early on in Spaceman, we’re offered the central thesis of the film in the most blunt of terms: during a press conference, Jakub (Sandler) is asked point blank by a Czech teenager whether he’s the loneliest man in the world. Isabella Rossellini’s Commissioner Tuma tries to somewhat reword the question; if nothing else, as Jakub further inches near Jupiter where he’s tasked with examining an odd lilac-colored galaxy-looking cloud that suddenly appeared four years ago, he’s arguably the human most removed from any other person in the entire galaxy. He may not be lonely. But he’s most definitely alone. Except, of course, Day’s script wants us to keep that notion of loneliness at the forefront of how we understand Jakub, who’s clearly struggling with his months-long solo expedition. He’s missing his wife (Carey Mulligan’s Lenka) and now spends his days reminiscing about what he really left behind and what he may not find waiting for him when he returns.

But Jakub isn’t so alone after all. No sooner has Renck hit us over the head with the notion that this brave astronaut may be struggling to stay awake and alert as he approaches the “Chopra Cloud” than we’re greeted with the key other figure at the heart of Spaceman: Hanuš, a giant spider alien being who’s hitched a ride on Jakub’s spaceship and is now intent on helping this “skinny human” with the emotional turmoil this increasingly perilous mission will unleash. Hanuš is voiced by Paul Dano. And so, despite appearing like a terrifying creature from a B-horror flick (or something out of a Harry Potter flick or Tolkien’s lore, even), Hanuš comes across like a world-weary and wise ancient creature whose drone-like, if warmly monotone voice, eventually thaws Jakub’s initial shock at finding such a being inside his spaceship.

As Hanuš tells Jakub, he’s on the ship because Jakub’s loneliness intrigued him. And he’s there now to assist him in Jakub’s emotional distress. What this means is that Hanuš plunges his new friend deep into his most upsetting memories, including the many petty fights that are driving (as we know, but Jakub doesn’t) Lenka to finally leave him. In this sense, Hanuš is nothing more than a neat narrative device, a manifestation of Jakub’s frail and fearsome subconscious who keeps trying to quiet his anxieties over having left a pregnant wife behind in favor of a banner mission to explore what could hold the key to the very existence of the universe, its origin, even.

Such a conceit would and could be fertile ground on which to explore questions about loneliness and alienation. But that requires a deft touch, a fine balance between pompous platitudes (“Your loneliness is self-inflicted,” Hanuš all too earnestly informs Jakub) and the absurdist imagery on display (like the moment spider and man hug while floating in outer space). There’s the sense that Spaceman is a fable—one that borrows much and is indebted to Czech folklore (it all but name checks Antonín Dvořák’s 1901 opera Rusalka, about a water nymph who’s fallen for a human). But its commitment to a miserly sensibility that leaves little room for humor or warmth of any kind, means it plays the same beats over and over again. Namely that Jakub should’ve known what bounty of love he had in the hands of Mulligan’s Lenka; he shouldn’t have left her behind and should return to her as emboldened to embrace her in the flesh as he’s prone to do in her absence.

At once too cerebral and yet awash in sentimentality, Spaceman never quite manages to bring its various elements together into a tonally cohesive whole. Mulligan’s scenes on Earth abstract and deify her character to the point where she’s little else than a figure we can all admit is worth coming back to Earth for. Try as the Maestro actress might, she can’t ever make Lenka anything more than a plot device to advance Jakub’s own interior world which, even in the film’s own odd cosmology, takes up the entire galaxy. Similarly, while Sandler is committed to playing Jakub’s sadness in capital letters, one wonders why Renck felt the need to hand such a beguilingly depressed Eastern European role to an American actor so obviously associated with broad comedy and East Coast angst. (At least Renck was wise enough to recruit Max Richter, whose score here pairs nicely with his synth work in Ad Astra and The Leftovers, two towering propositions about grief and loneliness that somehow make Spaceman feel all the smaller in ambition and execution.)

There is indeed more to Spaceman than the description of it as “the Adam Sandler Netflix flick where the actor talks with a giant spider about loneliness for close to two hours.” But that neat and simplified (not to mention simplistic) logline captures precisely why the film ultimately falters; as a literary device, Hanuš may have dreamily allowed readers to explore Jakub’s increasingly morose view of himself and the life he left behind. (Indeed, signs of intriguing subplots, including a miscarriage and a traumatic childhood—all set against a Czech background—make one wonder how much richer the source material remains). Brought to life as it is here, this CGI spider constantly defies any calls to suspend your disbelief and embrace the pat philosophical discussions engaged in by astronaut and alien form in what feels like an interminable journey to Jupiter and back, where a middle-aged man learns little else than he should cherish those he loves.

Spaceman starts streaming on Netflix on March 1