Spaceman (2024, dir. Johan Renck)

by | Feb 29, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 107 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 1 March 2024

WHO’S IN SPACEMAN?

Adam Sandler, Paul Dano, Carey Mulligan, Kunal Nayyar, Lena Olin, Isabella Rossellini

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Johan Renck (director), Colby Day (writer), Lia Buman, Reid Carolin, Tim Headington, Peter Kiernan, Michael Parets, Max Silva and Channing Tatum (producers), Max Richter (composer), Jakob Ihre (cinematographer), John Axelrad, Scott Cummings and Simon Smith (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A lonely astronaut (Sandler) makes an unexpected connection on a solo mission…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SPACEMAN?

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: Adam Sandler is one of the best actors working today. You wouldn’t think, with a filmography that largely consists of juvenile comedies like Billy Madison, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and the Grown Ups movies, that Sandler was capable of a performance that was legitimately stronger and more nuanced than most of his other fellow thespians. Yet, he’s proven everyone wrong time and time again with excellent and genuinely awards-worthy turns in the likes of Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, Hustle, and now Spaceman which perhaps features his most ambitious dramatic work to date.

Sandler, of course, turns in an astonishing performance as the lead in director Johan Renck’s moody and cerebral adaptation of Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel Spaceman of Bohemia, which like its hopeless protagonist reaches for the stars and tries to grasp something profound, despite it not always being within its reach.

In the film, Sandler is Jakub Procházka, a Czech astronaut who is six months into a solo mission deep into the cosmos, where he’s been tasked by his government to investigate a strange purple phenomenon that has seeped into Earth’s skies for the past four years. Jakub is under immense pressure to fulfil his duties, so much so that his emotional neglect of his heavily pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) has caused her to leave him; not that he knows, for the news is withheld from Jakub to keep him focused on the task at hand. Even still, Jakub is left in a psychologically challenging isolated state, which is exacerbated by the sudden arrival of a very unlikely passenger: a giant spider-like creature named Hanuš (voiced by Paul Dano), which begins to serve as Jakub’s soft-spoken therapist as he prods the human’s memories in an attempt to better understand the human condition.

Though it might seem otherwise, I assure you that this Adam Sandler film where he plays an astronaut that eventually befriends a cuddly CGI spider is most certainly not another one of his light-hearted comedies. The film is, in fact, a deeply soulful and understated character study that director Renck and screenwriter Colby Day are careful not to overplay, even when the CG arachnid is present. As more about Sandler’s Jakub is revealed, from his tragic past as the son of a proud Communist during Czechoslovakia’s breakaway from the Soviet Union, which he is now desperately trying to redeem by participating in this dangerous mission, to the increasingly distant attitude he has with Mulligan’s Lenka whilst back on Earth, it becomes clear that he’s rather self-serving and even kind of pathetic, on top of his numerous other flaws. Crucially, though, he is never unlikeable, as Sandler lends his character plenty of sympathy to where you can still see an actual human underneath that misguided mindset, and as Spaceman slowly floats towards a somewhat inevitable (to a point) conclusion, it’s hard to not feel some kind of emotion for his ultimate growth that comes in part from, of all places, the giant spider that may or may not even be real.

Hanuš the spider is an unexpectedly warm presence in this movie, which as someone who is afraid of giant insects is quite shocking for me to even declare. Through a mixture of photorealistic effects and Paul Dano’s soothing vocal performance, Hanuš is not as ridiculous a presence as he very easily could have been; in fact, he serves as the beating heart of the entire movie, one that even Jakub can’t resist after a certain point. The friendship that develops between the two of them is a bizarrely endearing strand that both Renck and Day take remarkably seriously, even when Jakub is introducing his alien companion to chocolate spreads and giving him a big hug that, in lesser hands, could have been a laughable image. Instead, the moment is incredibly sweet and tender, because both are characters that you have grown to enjoy being around, while the stylish filmmaking is gentle enough to allow such a moment to feel earned at this point in the story.

However, it is when Spaceman ventures outside of its contained drama that the film loses some of its momentum. Scenes set on Earth that largely follow Lenka after abandoning her space-bound husband, also the father of her unborn child, lack the nuance and grace that the scenes between Jakub and Hanuš carry, because despite Carey Mulligan’s strong performance the character is written to be much more one-note and therefore less interesting. It’s difficult to get emotionally involved in these scenes, largely due to how the writing doesn’t take nearly as much time developing this character or her own motivations, which come across as empty and ill-defined in the final product. Again, Mulligan is as solid as ever, and in the few scenes she actually shares with Sandler, the two of them have a decent chemistry where you can see what exactly sparked their ultimately doomed romance.

There is also a final section of the movie that doesn’t wholly work. It is the only part of the film that is somehow the most conventional and effects-heavy, but also the most artsy and experimental, and neither of them mesh particularly well together. While there is some beautiful cinematography and effects work on display here, as well as a moving score by Max Richter, it struggles to maintain the more intimate drama that the film has spent most of its running time setting up, and just loses itself within a manipulative and borderline pretentious exploration of concepts well beyond human understanding. It feels like it was a note from Netflix to add some action into this otherwise action-free narrative, and then to homage the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris to win some points from film snobs.

Despite its flaws, Spaceman has enough moments of strength to achieve orbit, especially with Adam Sandler delivering one of his most committed dramatic performances that signal even greater things to come from the former clown.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Spaceman is an ambitious sci-fi character study that features an excellent lead performance by Adam Sandler where he forms a heartfelt bond with a cuddly CGI spider (it’s less ridiculous than it sounds), but it doesn’t always work as undercooked supporting characters and an unbalanced climax leave it less profound than it desires.

Three out of five stars

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