Spaceman: this weird, ambitious sci-fi propels Adam Sandler into uncharted territory

Adam Sandler in Spaceman
Adam Sandler in Spaceman - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Adam Sandler is a long way from being king of the goofballs these days, after effortful image shifts such as Uncut Gems. Spaceman propels him even further afield. Thanks to the guiding hand of Swedish musician-turned-director Johan Renck (Chernobyl), this is certainly the actor’s first attempt to make a contemplative Andrei Tarkovsky homage in the outer reaches of our solar system.  And why not? Sandler has the Netflix deal to get this sort of experiment off the ground now, however philosophical the film’s intent. It has a budget of $40m, which is about half an Ad Astra.

Despite some superficial similarities, it’s a considerably weirder film than Ad Astra, though, not least because roughly half of Sandler’s scenes are with a giant, talking extra-terrestrial spider which has existed since the dawn of time.

This being, who agrees to be named Hanuš and shows up unbidden on Sandler’s spacecraft, is a practically infinite fount of wisdom, and for my money, boringly cast. Paul Dano does the voice with his soothingly level, near-narcotised delivery: I’d have way preferred Werner Herzog, or even the colourful tones of Isabella Rossellini, who has her own role here as a somewhat duplicitous boss back on Earth.

Sandler’s character, Jakub, is a Czech cosmonaut who has agreed to the deeply solitary assignment of investigating a dust cloud near Jupiter, which might unlock the very secrets of the universe.

It’s unclear why he’s been sent alone on a mission everyone claims is so vital for humankind. The ramifications of the job, which was the same in Jaroslav Kalfař’s absurdist source novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, don’t seem to interest Renck very much. As science fiction, it’s more introspective than rigorously conceptual.

Any excuse, basically, to dub Jakub “the world’s loneliest man”, and explore the meltdown of his relationship with his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan). She wants to end their marriage, and leaves a teary video message to that end, but Rossellini’s Tuma refuses to relay it, arguing that Jakub’s already fragile health might not survive the blow.

Sandler and Mulligan barely act together as these separately marooned spouses. The role of Lenka has been significantly expanded in Colby Day’s script, however, to give her a concerned mother (Lena Olin) and a desire to give birth at a woodsy sanctuary for the single.

She’s not used as some sort of figment, like the visions of the astronaut’s dead wife in both film versions of Solaris, but trots us through a minor encore of Maestro, as another partner nearing her wits’ end with the famous maverick who keeps abandoning her. (Spaceman was actually shot a year before Maestro, and held up by a range of rumoured production issues.)

Marooned souls: Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan
Marooned souls: Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan - FlixPix / Alamy Stock Photo

“It seems your mate is pulling away,” declares Hanuš, who has eight eyes and still maintains his habit from the book of calling Jakub “skinny human”.

Renck’s direction makes Spaceman a bumpy ride – he’s way too enamoured with motion blur in the flashbacks, and when we finally get off Jakub’s ship, the purple nebula inspires chintzy anticlimax. We’re missing any real sense of awe – but for all its faults, this lands somewhere between noble failure and endearing oddity. The Jakub-Hanuš relationship does achieve a doleful sweetness.

109 min. On Netflix now