Credit: Netflix
by Igor Fishman Featured Film Streaming Scene

Spaceman — Johan Renck

March 4, 2024

The elevator pitch for Spaceman sounds like the wind-up to a bad joke. Here’s a somber metaphysical tone poem wherein a scrappy Czech space program run by Isabella Rossellini sends astronaut Adam Sandler on a months-long solo mission, only to be derailed by a giant talking spider, Paul Dano, who via mind-meld psychoanalyzes the spaceman’s failing marriage to Carey Mulligan. As you can imagine, the ways in which this over-ambitious sci-fi plotting could go sideways are myriad, and examples of this type of tragic off-beat absurdity succeeding are few and far between. On one end of the spectrum are weird little miracles like The Congress, a messy meditation on AI’s future starring Robin Wright in an adaptation of a Stanislav Lem deep cut, and on the other, bombastic fiascos like Mr. Nobody, where an earnest Jared Leto stares straight into the camera and performs “humanity” with a capital H at us for two hours. Spaceman falls squarely in between the two: its ambitions are anchored by Johan Renck’s (Chernobyl) measured direction, but then it also goes racing toward a destination far too trite to justify the eccentric journey. This is particularly disappointing as Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia, the novel upon which the film is based, is something of a little miracle itself, and it’s by far wittier, thornier, and wilder than the sanded-down version that makes it to screen.

We meet Jakub Procházka (Sandler), the titular spaceman, six months into a solo space mission to investigate an ominous purple cloud referred to as Chopra. Those versed in the sad man in space genre will immediately think of Solaris and its respective motifs; even the opening shot (one the film never comes close to topping), a dream sequence of Jakub wading through a babbling brook in his space suit, gives off Tarkovsky-lite. Sandler’s performance reinforces this with Kris Kelvin stoicism, his face sunken, weary, and pallid, and his vocal delivery is a somber monotone with just a lilt of an accent. He floats through his ramshackle spaceship framed in the grimy yellows and greens of Renck’s Chernobyl, and it’s all scored with Max Richter’s contemplative ambient atmospherics. It’s not surprising to see Sandler go this grim to match these tones. Ever since Uncut Gems, we’ve seen him slowly tapping more and more into that aquifer of sadness buried beneath the roiling outbursts of anger and comedy that make up much of his career work. This exact weariness defines his basketball scout character in his recent film Hustle, but more to the point, it’s merely being brought to the fore now as this specific tenor existed in the Sandler toolbox as far back as Big Daddy and Click. Despite having proven himself quite a few times since his dramatic turn in Punch Drunk Love there’s still an air of stunt-casting each time he appears, and here he might be pushing the exhausted melancholy just a notch too far in a bit of counteraction.

The nature of this casting choice and the film’s emphatic lean toward Jakub’s impressionistic memory montages immediately calls forth Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a superior film that makes this exercise seem worse by proxy, an unfortunate effect of Colby Day’s script which compacts and streamlines the eccentric novel so much so that it flattens its sweeping exuberance in the process, leaving only the intractable building blocks  (i.e. talking alien arachnid)  in the wake of the script doctor steamroller. To mention it, Dano’s psychoanalyst spider named Hanuš reflects an absolutely delightful bit of performance. More than that, it’s outrageous that this CGI space spider, obviously the most risky aspect to adapt, is the part that succeeds so nimbly where the film’s more traditional elements stumble. Dano’s reading recalls HAL 9000 on the cusp of being turned off; poised, inquisitive, and tinged with just enough depressed resignation to create an emotional tether. (As surprising as it is to imagine that Dano would be voicing the spider — and not Rossellini, who already has some experience with the subject — it’s doubly so as one comes to terms with how easily the actor knocks it out of the park.)

Spaceman hits a hypnotic stride and glides at a relaxed but steady clip throughout, but the real trouble comes when we arrive at Chopra and it’s time to connect the dots. In the novel, Kalfař places great emphasis on Jakub’s tormented relationship with his father’s legacy, the man having been a ranking Party member who surveilled and tortured his countrymen in the former Czechoslovakia. This guilt and burden Jakub carries with him resurfaces when Lenka leaves, and he begins to have his government colleagues spy on her, the reports on her daily activities becoming a sardonic echo of his father’s espionage. This paired with Hanuš’ probing into Jakub’s memories, and the broad mission to read and analyze the Chopra cloud, places the observer effect front and center. In that, the act of observation imposes itself onto the object observed. Jakub’s character arc throughout the novel is entirely focused on self-discovery, an understanding that his mission to observe Chopra or to surveil Lenka are both rooted in a desire for control tethered to guilt over his father’s sins.

Yet in the film, wherein this family history is barely addressed and winning Lenka back instead takes centerstage, a dissonance is created next to all of the other thematic elements in place. This writerly intervention to scrounge up a more substantial happy ending ends up not just absolving Jakub’s persistence in chasing Lenka down every avenue available, but in some perverse way redeems it as the ultimate act of love. The contortion results in such an oversimplification of what’s going on that much of the film’s weird dimensionality becomes extraneous, and the dramatic culmination feels irredeemably small. Unable to bear the weight of the muddled themes and leaden philosophical crawl, the film makes a swift exit, leaving with only a shrug of loose ends as we wait for a punchline that never arrives.

DIRECTOR: Johan Renck;  CAST: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Kunal Nayyar, Isabella Rossellini;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  IN THEATERS: February 23;  STREAMINGMarch 1;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.