‘Spaceman’ Review: Adam Sandler’s Sci-Fi Drama Delivers a Destination Worth the Journey

“Chernobyl” director Johan Renck crafts a Netflix film that’s as much of an oddity as it is an odyssey

"Spaceman"
"Spaceman" (CREDIT: Larry Horricks/Netflix)

Based on the 2017 novel “Spaceman of Bohemia,” director Johan Renck’s “Spaceman” is as much of an oddity as it is an odyssey. Much like any mission, there are moments where you wonder if it is worth it, but you’re ultimately glad you dug deep because, overall, there is enough about the experience that feels rewarding.

The Netflix space drama is as earnest as it is fantastical. To dismiss it as weird would do an injustice to Renck’s creative vision that has many merits; however, it is guilty of taking itself too seriously at times. The film’s sincerity sometimes risks feeling insipid when the intention was probably something more enriching or insightful. Those moments, though, are fleeting.

“Spaceman” sees Adam Sandler playing Jakob Procházka, an astronaut six months into a mission to the edge of the solar system. During the voyage he realizes he’s not received a video communication from his pregnant wife Lenka (commandingly portrayed by Carey Mulligan) for a while and that something isn’t right. His colleagues at mission control try to protect him from the truth for as long as they can. It quickly transpires that running, or floating, away from the problems at home might not have been the solution. Deep in the bosom of zero gravity solitude, surrounded by stars and darkness soundtracked by a low, hypnotic hum of the technology that encases his existence, Jakob’s reflections consume him.

So far, so real; however, a mysterious, six-eyed, spider-like creature appears while Jakob’s been analyzing and contemplating the actions, choices, and circumstances that led to his relationship’s potentially irreparable fracture. Voiced by Paul Dano, the entity is a stowaway who has traveled through space and time looking for solace after fleeing their home planet where the inhabitants were destroyed and is “intrigued” by the loneliness of the astronaut. Having never been given a name, Jakob calls him Hanuš (pronounced Hanoosh).

While Lenka turns to humans as she plans a life as a single mother without her Spaceman, Jakob, also haunted by the sins of his father, embarks on an odd couple exercise that blends therapy and inter-species education with a cultural exchange program. The altruistic Hanuš is Jakob’s voice of reason, but also a creature “uncomfortable with the guilt in the human mind.” The question for the three main characters is how they can find each other if they can’t find themselves.

“Spaceman” is another small step forward for Sandler as he continues to show the breadth and depth of his dramatic ability; however, this is the first time his execution has bordered on feeling flat. It’s the polar opposite of his energy in “Uncut Gems.” While largely captivating, there’s a tipping point, especially where Jakob and Hanuš are conversing in calming, reflective tones that border on ASMR and, as a result, along with the thrum of space, rather than focusing your attention, almost induces nodding off.

Dano’s magical performance as the “Hal meets Yoda” spider-like companion is pure tragic comfort. When you add Max Richter’s beautiful score and the exemplary sound design, it’s a sensory bath that risks creating a perfect storm that hinders rather than helps. There’s no denying it’s compelling and connective.

While that tone dominates the first and second act, punctuated with flashbacks and sporadic moments of drama, it is the film’s third act where the “Spaceman” really finds its feet and delivers the contemplative, almost meditative, destination the journey has promised. The execution and revelations that unfold as the mission heads to its final destination, an end Hanuš refers to as the Beginning, are emotional and powerful.

There is a degree of ambiguity about where and when it takes place, but Sandler’s Jakob is Czech without the accent. The cast, including Isabella Rossellini, Kunal Nayyar, and Lena Olin all use their natural accents – a creative call by the director. It’s a choice that also mirrors that of Czech author Jaroslav Kalfař, who wrote the original book “Spaceman of Bohemia,” to write it in English. That neutrality helps and reflects the universality of the core narrative. However, mid-century Eastern European design is a distinct flavor in everything from the mission control offices, to the homes of the characters, to the interior of Jakob’s spacecraft and even in the earthy tones and designs of the clothes that adorn Mulligan’s Lenka. Fans of the period’s design aesthetic will eat well.

Before moving into film and television, Renck came from the world of music videos, having a successful career in the early ’90s under the moniker Stakka Bo. “Spaceman” shares much more DNA with that world than with some of his other work, including the Emmy-winning mini-series “Chernobyl.” From the intimate and balletic capture of Jakob’s zero gravity existence at the hands of Jakob Ihre, to the use and manipulation of visions of memories and projected images, to the stunning and reality-bending vision that is space and the Beginning, “Spaceman” is art as much as it a film.

It could easily have been a film made to accompany a concept album. While Jakob’s journey plays out in a spaceship with a large spider-esque companion, his expedition could be transposed to a road trip with a man and a talking dog, or a boat with a large chatty fish. It could also work as a two-hander stage production without changing the core narrative. The visuals would be different, but every one of those quests could be equally insightful and beautiful. It’s worth noting that “Spaceman” benefits from multiple viewings.

Smart, entrancing, and filed firmly under interesting, “Spaceman” is a conversation-starting meditation on the human condition made as a piece of art for audiences to experience rather than being a film made with an audience in mind.

Spaceman will premiere on Netflix on Feb. 23.

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