Space movies that blend the cosmic and the personal have a history of some critical acclaim. In “recent” times – if you are extending that term back three decades – we have examples such as Contact, Interstellar and Arrival. If you want to go back further and get more artsy, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and even 2001: A Space Odyssey might qualify, though perhaps the latter is more an example of a different thing Johan Renck’s new film Spaceman is doing: a head trip brought on by interaction with the unknown.


The thing is, the basic narrative requirement to develop your main character means that this person is always going to have one foot on terra firma, even if they’re an astronaut, and even if we see those scenes only in flashback or not at all, as may be the case in films like Gravity or Moon. The successes tend to disguise just how difficult it is to get this balance right, and the failures – of which Spaceman is now one – amply demonstrate just how many ways you can go wrong.

Astronaut Jakub Prochazka (Adam Sandler) is on a one-year solo mission to explore and analyse a purple nebula cloud in the vicinity of Jupiter, which has been visible in Earth’s night sky these past four years. His foot on terra firma is his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), who became pregnant with their first child only after Jakub had already committed to this unprecedented milestone in the history of space exploration. One hundred and eighty-nine days in, Jakub has almost reached his destination and is starting to crack up a bit, the isolation leading his mind to play tricks on him.

One of the contributions to his mental instability is the fact that he hasn’t gotten any messages from Lenka in a suspiciously long time. The comms are working fine back to the Czech Republic, which in this version of our reality has one of the world’s leading space programs. There’s just no word from Lenka, and ground control is running out of excuses why that is. We the viewers know that Lenka has decided to leave him, pushed to her limits by the unexpected toll of his departure, with his past neglectful behaviour and focus on his own career sending her over the top. Concerned only about the successful completion of the mission, ground control undertandably does not want to share Lenka’s latest tear-soaked video with him.

Right about this time, Jakub starts hearing a voice on his craft, initially thinking it is a crossed channel in his comms system. That explanation must be disregarded when he discovers what can only be described as a space arachnid that’s about his own size, who speaks perfect English – or maybe perfect Czech, if we are considering the dialogue to be adjusted for our English-speaking ears – in the voice of Paul Dano. The being appears to be gentle and have benevolent purposes, one of which is to effectively provide Jakub a series of appointments with a psychologist, to get to the bottom of his issues and insecurities. This isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. The companionship may be key to getting Jakub to that purple nebula intact, and observing whatever secrets it may hold.


We have to start by talking about the giant spider in the room. At first this creature, which Jakub names Hanus, is beguiling, its soft-spoken and highly intelligent observations offsetting the obvious creepiness of its biological design. As the movie stretches on, though, a little of Hanus goes a long way, as Colby Day’s script has him address Jakub as “Skinny Human” enough times that you could make a drinking game out of it. (Never mind the fact that the 57-year-old Sandler isn’t in the same shape as when he was a younger man, making the assignation slightly absurd.)

The more problematic portion of Spaceman, at least at first, is the one on Earth. Renck and Day make the choice to follow the real-time movements of Lenka and of Jakub’s commanding officer, played by Isabella Rossellini, as well as a friend Lenka meets at some sort of commune for pregnant women without partners, played by Lena Olin. Not only is much of this material hopelessly banal, functioning as a stillborn (bad choice of words) attempt to give Mulligan’s character her share of the film’s themes, but it miscalculates just how much of a narrative disruption it is to keep leaving the side of the astronaut and his spider buddy to follow this character.


And this character has a serious flaw in terms of our sympathy for her. We shouldn’t belittle any character’s feelings of being neglected or made second fiddle to their partner’s career aspirations, but we are also not talking about some guy who drives his family to destitution because he’s pursuing an ill-advised career as a painter or novelist. This is the single most accomplished person in his field in the entire world, and that field requires long voyages to outer space – voyages she presumably signs off on. The fact that she would leave him in the midst of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, of comparatively limited duration, which has a demonstrable benefit to humankind, just makes her seem selfish and petty.

Lenka’s indefensible choices aren’t the thing that really sends this movie off the rails. As Jakub’s portion in space approaches its inevitable big climax, the film becomes orders of magnitude more corny than it had been, to the point where you might actually start laughing at a film that takes itself deadly seriously. Sandler himself does not provide a single moment that is intended to be funny, so committed is he to this serious performance that he’s quite stiff when he speaks in his stitled English with a Czech accent. There are certain moments at the end that feel as though they could have only been conceived as comedy, yet it is clear they were not.


If one thing makes you want to slap Spaceman in the face more than anything else, though, it may be the excessive attention devoted to flashbacks or visions or dream images of the relationship between Jakub and Lenka, when they were an idealised young couple who met at a party, she dressed like a wood nymph, and he dressed like, well, an astronaut. On top of everything else, Spaceman is trying to hit us with the mind-bendy wistfulness of something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which only has the impact it’s supposed to have if we buy into the epic romance between these two characters. But because one of these characters is the most boring astronaut you’ve ever met, and the other tries to leave this boring astronaut in the midst of his most important work project ever, you just don’t feel it – and you keep not feeling it over, and over, and over again, until the film finally, mercifully, ends.


Spaceman is currently streaming on Netflix.

3 / 10