Spaceman review: Adam Sandler’s on serviceably serious form in confused Netflix sci-fi movie

The comedian adds another serious role to his filmography – but he’s let down by a film that suffers from an identity crisis

Geoffrey Macnab
Friday 01 March 2024 08:18 GMT
Spaceman Trailer

Adam Sandler is lost in space with only a giant spider for company – and it’s not a comedy. New sci-fi feature Spaceman, adapted from Czech writer Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 novel Spaceman of Bohemia, very quickly turns into a bit of a dirge. The film is yet another of those films about astronauts a long way from home who have unresolved personal business back on planet Earth.

Jakub (Sandler) is 189 days into his solo mission on behalf of the Euro Space Programme. He’s on the outskirts of Jupiter, investigating something called the “Chopra Cloud” whose particles he hopes to collect (it’s not entirely clear why). While he is in the further reaches of the galaxy, his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) has been left to cope on her own. She now wants to leave him.

This is the set-up for Spaceman. It’s a study of two very isolated and unhappy people. With Jakub, the loneliness is self-inflicted. He has chosen to be an astronaut. Whenever Lenka needs him most, he is always thousands of miles away. Swedish director Johan Renck (best known for the hit series Chernobyl) places a heavy burden on his lead actor. Sandler is on his own in the spaceship and is in the vast majority of the scenes. There are constant shots of him fiddling with machinery and floating from one part of the vessel to another. He is suffering from insomnia; his anxiety is rising fast.

In films from Uncut Gems to Punch-Drunk Love, the US comedian has often excelled in non-comic roles. Here, he convincingly portrays a rugged, practical man suddenly forced to question his priorities and to look back into his past. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance but not one that ever really quickens the emotions.

Renck takes a surprisingly sober approach to what seems like very outlandish material. Jakub’s spaceship has a Sputnik-like look. Strangely, the scenes on Earth are the ones in which everything feels dreamlike and uncanny. Jakub soon begins to have strange visions of Lenka walking through fields full of flowers. Then the spider Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) turns up. Like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and robots in various other space films, he is well-spoken, intelligent, and sounds like a cerebral butler. He can sense that “skinny human” (as he calls Jakub) is rootless and unhappy and that his “mate is pulling away”.

Spaceman itself suffers from a crisis of identity. We’re never quite sure if we’re watching a relationship drama, a Tarkovsky-like meditation on human solitude or another Gravity-like saga about an astronaut trying to survive. The film switches back and forth between space and life on Earth, dream sequences and footage of Lenka. There are also fleeting references to Jakub’s troubled childhood and to his father who did “bad things” and was on the “wrong side of history”.

Adam Sandler in Netflix’s ‘Spaceman’
Adam Sandler in Netflix’s ‘Spaceman’ (Netflix)

In its better moments, the film has a beguiling rhythm. There is something ineffably soothing about Dano’s delivery of his lines in that sombre, whispering voice as he teases out Jakub’s thoughts and memories, acting as his confessor and counsellor. The flashbacks and dream sequences are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling. In the spaceship itself, everything seems to happen in gentle slow motion. In its drabber moments, though, the filmmaking risks becoming very ponderous and portentous. There is no levity or humour whatsoever unless you count the bizarre scene of the spider gorging on “rich, creamy” hazelnut spread.

The redoubtable Mulligan brings pathos and intelligence to her role as the abandoned wife but it’s a sketchily drawn role. She is given far less screen time than Sandler. At times, she seems less a character in her own right than a projection of his guilty imagination. The cast also includes Lena Olin (famous for her work with Ingmar Bergman) as Mulligan’s mum, and Isabella Rossellini as the ruthless space programme boss. These, though, are really just bit parts. Spaceman is ultimately Sandler’s show but it’s one astronaut movie that ultimately seems very short on rocket fuel.

Dir: Johan Renck. Starring: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Lena Olin, Paul Dano; 106 mins

‘Spaceman’ is on Netflix now

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