Film reviews and more since 2009

Spaceman (2024) review

Dir. Johan Renck

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

We’re at the point where we should all be aware that Adam Sandler can turn in a riveting dramatic performance in between schlock like Murder Mystery 2 or a cute animated movie like Leo. One thing we’re not very used to seeing is Sandler playing a character who is emotionally cold and externally understated. Broadly speaking, his dramas are made effective when he’s playing somebody who is manic but lonely, ala Uncut Gems.

On that note, Johan Renck’s Spaceman — based on Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 novel Spaceman of Bohemia — asks Sandler to be something he naturally isn’t. Sandler’s performance is committed, but ultimately unmoving as he’s both miscast and misused in a film that comes so close to taking off for greater heights.

Sandler plays Jakub Procházka, a cosmonaut who has embarked on a long, lonely mission to investigate a peculiar cloud hovering in the galaxy, not far from Jupiter. The mission required him to leave behind his pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), who is contemplating divorce due to her husband’s figurative and literal unavailability. The two have grown incredibly distant from one another, and flashbacks detail when times were good and how present times are not-so-good. Following a nightmare about a strange, spiderlike creature crawling out of his nose, Jakub wakes up to find that an enormous, six-eyed arachnid alien (voiced by Paul Dano) is aboard his ship.

The creature, who takes the name Hanuš (pronounced “ha-noosh”), after a medieval clockmaker, serves as Jakub’s therapist. He’s telepathically tapped-in to Jakub’s memories and subconscious anxieties, all while revealing a complicated situation of his own. Hanuš is hurling towards “the beginning,” a mysterious place in the stars where everything exists. However, it’s a place that will also kill him when smaller creatures will takeover and consume his body.

While Jakub can communicate with Lenka (via an intergalactic Zoom-style program he helped pioneer), the only other major human player is the mission’s director (Isabella Rossellini). Kunal Nayyar is also present, mostly as a disembodied voice, as Jakub’s space technician, who can handle any problem except a weird, giant spider only he can see.

For all intents and purposes, Spaceman is a talky two-hander between a man and a mythical creature. In an ASMR tone of voice that conveys somber reflection, Dano does most of the talking in revealing the root of Jakub’s neuroses (it involves his poor upbringing and his relationship with his now-deceased father). Even as a towering, frightening spider, Dano has a lot of vocal range; more than Sandler, who spends much of the film either looking downright confused or impenetrably pensive. The flashbacks to Jakub’s life with Lenka are so disjointedly presented, while also being emotionally dry, that they don’t have much impact either.

Spaceman wants to be a complex psychological drama set amongst the cosmos ala Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but its realizations aren’t particularly grand. In fact, they’re familiar. The juxtaposition of one man’s traumatic childhood and rocky home-life against a backdrop of the vastness of space is hardly original in itself, but screenwriter Colby Day merely settles for brushstrokes of depth. Carey Mulligan is also badly shortchanged as Lenka. She’s a one-dimensional neglected wife, and that’s a role far too thankless for someone of her caliber.

What just barely saves Spaceman from being a pretty-yet-mediocre drama is its third act, which has Jakub and Hanuš arriving at the Chopra cloud, where every single moment in time exists simultaneously. This leads to a touching extended sequence between the two that has qualities that are both serene and moving, a relief for a film that, up until this point, seemed so content with being emotionally removed. The confluence of the screenplay finally finding some tangible meaning in the connection of its two characters coupled with rousing musical crescendos from Max Richter and stellar cinematography from Jakob Ihre effectively afford an otherwise underwhelming space movie some gravitas. Whether you make it to that point depends on your endurance level.

NOTE: Spaceman is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Starring: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Isabella Rossellini, Kunal Nayyar, and Lena Olin. Voiced by: Paul Dano. Directed by: Johan Renck.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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