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‘Spaceman’ Review: Adam Sandler Is the Loneliest Man in the Universe in Space Drama That Leaves Him Adrift

Adam Sandler has gone pseudo-serious before, from a mentally agitated toilet plunger salesman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” to a depressed comic in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.” But he’s never been so dour as cosmonaut Jakub Prochazka in Johan Renck’s lonely island of a science-fiction drama, “Spaceman,” where he’s six months into a solitary research mission investigating spectral cloud activity around the planet Jupiter.

Sci-fi cinephiles are certainly familiar with the cinematic wonderments capable of the gas giant, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s Stargate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which sends Keir Dullea on an existential trip into Jupiter’s furthest depths. But Renck’s film, written by Colby Day, is too concerned with the far more banal Earthly dramas Jakub has left behind in the form of his wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan), who is preparing to leave him. “Spaceman” is a miserable wallow in the cosmos that ultimately leaves Sandler adrift.

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Adapting Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 novel “Spaceman in Bohemia,” “Chernobyl” director Renck and screenwriter Day make this “Spaceman” more of a love story across the solar system than a piercing exploration of how deep space can reconfigure one’s emotional makeup. The conceit on its head seems an obvious nod to Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” in which a psychologist is confronted with an extraterrestrial facsimile of his long-dead wife while investigating a telepathic planet. Sandler’s Jakub is similarly the loneliest man in the universe, as news reports on Earth describe him, having been jettisoned to Jupiter by a NASA-type organization that feels more rooted in the Soviet space race aesthetic; Jakub has been sent by a Czech space team, though the movie features no Czech actors and his character is obviously not European, given his unchanged American accent.

Jakub and his wife Lenka communicate through Zoom-like dispatches on a chat system that Jakub’s Czech employers, led by Isabella Rossellini (here refreshingly in the flesh and not voicing an animal or cartoon character), are now intercepting: A pregnant Lenka, six months into Jakub’s journey, now plans to separate from her husband, but Jakub still has another six to go, and sharing that news threatens to compromise the mission. Jakub passes the days on tranquilizers and anti-nausea medication for which he’s now become the poster boy on Earth, running shirtless while hooked up to a treadmill to prevent his bones from decaying.

Whether an imaginary figment or actual alien contact onboard the spacecraft, Jakub begins to hallucinate an enormous and ancient arachnid creature he dubs Hanuš (voiced by Paul Dano). With hirsute, tarantula-like arms and eyes like amber sacs of roe, Hanuš is an occasionally marvelous anthropomorphic VFX creation, offering Jakub therapeutic advice on how to save his flailing marriage while keeping the astronaut company on his somber galactic sojourn. “Your memories are making me depressed,” Hanuš tells Jakub. It’s hard to believe that this deadpan, soothingly voiced creature isn’t already depressed enough, and Dano’s voice contribution is the best feature in a movie already beset by bugs.

“Spaceman”<cite>Netflix</cite>
“Spaceman”Netflix

For one, Mulligan is entirely wasted as Lenka, who spends a lot of time pensively staring out windows, wondering where it all went wrong. (Whenever a film cuts to a character just staring into the void through a window, you have to wonder how they came to stand there in the first place, as no one actually does this.) Whether in Jakub’s memories or in Renck’s own fantasy of the narrative, Lenka also walks through goldenrod-hued fields, bemoaning her broken relationship. At least Terrence Malick makes the effort to send his contemplating actors twirling through such fields, but Mulligan’s Lenka is inert, suspended in her own marital rut.

Back in space, meanwhile, Sandler’s Jakub is disheveled and grim, coated in a Max Richter score that’s more an ambient soup enveloping the movie than the plangent melodic orchestrations we’ve come to know from something like “On the Nature of Daylight,” used to great effect in a much smarter movie about the cosmos’ capacity to reflect our own existential anguish, “Arrival.”

That’s not to say “Spaceman” doesn’t look damn good at times. Cinematographer Jacob Ihre, with whom director Renck worked on all episodes of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” moves the camera throughout the space shuttle as if it, too, is untethered from gravity, hovering around Jakub as he drifts through the vessel’s otherwise mundane design. For all its “Solaris”-ness, “Spaceman” hardly has the ambitious production design to back its lofty reference points. Jakub might as well just be in a shitty apartment feeling sorry for himself, as the film doesn’t engage with the true cosmic potential of how his environment mirrors his own interior. (Cleverly, Jakub keeps essential condiments like sriracha taped to a control board so as to keep them from bobbing around the shuttle.) All the time the movie spends on Earth, meanwhile, is even less wondrous, with Renck repeatedly cutting to flashbacks (or dream sequences?) mired in fish eye lenses and a funhouse-mirror-like beveled framing that only underscores the banality of their content.

When Hanuš finally does lead Jakub into the purple extraterrestrial vapors orbiting around Jupiter that seem to be haunting humans from the sky back on Earth, “Spaceman” explodes into a messy spectacle of kitschy special effects that only remind the audience of the four walls of green screen inevitably surrounding Sandler during their making. The idea of glittering space ghost particles offering communication with an Earthling feels ripped from some bad ‘90s sci-fi concept. And the bluntness of the dialogue doesn’t help elevate “Spaceman” beyond anything but the mundane either, as Jakub, faced with the vastness of Jupiter’s atmosphere ahead, tells Hanuš, “I feel fear.” You could’ve shown us that rather than told it.

Seeing Sandler whirl gravity-free throughout the space shuttle isn’t without its pleasures, as it’s certainly not something we’ve seen from the “Uncut Gems” and “Waterboy” actor before. But beyond the physical demands of the role — Sandler was wired up by stuntmen each day on set — “Spaceman” brings no new shade to some of the glummer Sandler personas we’re already familiar with. Renck’s film leaves him quite literally lost in space with nowhere to go, and rather than leave us with new perspectives on space travel or marital discord or an awe-eyed curiosity about either, we leave with a shrug.

Grade: C

“Spaceman” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Netflix will open it theatrically on Friday, February 23 before it starts streaming on Friday, March 1.

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