Review: Adam Sandler Journeys to Jupiter in Spaceman, a Sci-Fi Drama with Relationship Issues

Like many of you out there, I love a good sad astronaut movie in the vein of Solaris (either version), Moon, and Ad Astra. So I was admittedly intrigued when I saw that Swedish director Johan Renck was making a feature version of Jaroslav Kalfar's novel Spaceman of Bohemia (adapted by Colby Day). Adam Sandler plays Czech cosmonaut Jakub Prochazka, sent to the edge of the solar system (somewhere on the other side of Jupiter) to investigate a strange, massive space-dust cloud that has been quite visible from Earth for several years. Director Renck is primarily known for doing most of the episodes of HBO’s Chernobyl, as well as groundbreaking music videos for the likes of Madonna, David Bowie, and Beyonce, and he’s done a fair amount of series television on shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. It’s safe to say his status as a solid, visionary filmmaker is secure, so there’s reason for tentative excitement about Spaceman.

The mission in question is not a suicide mission; it’s only meant to take a year, during which Jakub flies to the cloud, collects samples, and brings them back to Earth for analysis. Presumably set in the not-too-distant future, the craft that Jakub is traveling in is meant to allow him real-time access to other people, including his wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan), who is feeling very alone on Earth as she prepares to give birth to their child. But she felt distanced from Jakub even before he went on this journey, and the film’s primary concern isn’t about the space cloud; it’s about this relationship, and how keeping his marriage in one piece might be the key to Jakub keeping his sanity on this trip.

As he approaches the cloud, however, Jakub is visited by what appears to be a giant, somewhat gnarly-looking, spider that talks to him in whispered, comforting tones (in the voice of Paul Dano). Eventually given the name Hanus (pronounced Ha-noosh), the creature seems more curious than dangerous and wishes to know as much about Jakub’s thought processes and feelings as he can, and he manages to do this by tapping into memories Jakub has about himself and his wife in better times. Seeing how happy the two are, Hanus is confused why Jakub would ever leave Earth and this woman, and these seemingly obvious observations are the focal point of the movie. While his ship seems to be breaking down around him as he gets closer to the cloud, Jakub tries to make repairs and keep things functional while also holding onto his sanity while he tries to figure out if this spider is real or a product of his solitude in space for too many days.

Also popping in and out of the film are Lena Olin as Lenka’s mother, who thinks her daughter’s timing in wanting to leave Jakub could be better; Kunal Nayyar as Peter, Jakub’s man in the chair and key problem solver back on Earth; and Isabella Rossellini as project leader Commissioner Tuma, who does everything in her power to keep Jakub in the dark about his wife’s decision to leave him while also trying to get Lenka to change her mind. Meanwhile, as the craft gets closer to the cloud, the spider begins to reveal a few truths about what the cloud is and how it might impact Jakub once he gets inside of it. I’m not sure I could explain it to you if I wanted to.

Spaceman wants it both ways: to be an existential exercise about why humans don’t always respond sensibly to their emotions, and to be a purely science-fiction exercise with logical events occurring that are explained and understood by the end. I certainly don’t need all films of this ilk to answer all their questions—the unexplained is the place where discussion begins. But then Spaceman kind of attempts to answer them anyway, and not in a successful or fulfilling way at all. It turns into a murky mess by the end. Hell, they don’t even try to explain why Jakub needed to travel alone on this mission. Having one or two other cosmonauts in his seemingly very large vessel might have helped alleviate a great deal of his solitude.

The performances here are all quite good, with Sandler stowing every impulse to crack jokes in favor of looking like a walking corpse and being on the verge of tears the entire time. And it works; no complaints here. Much like she did in Maestro, Mulligan comes in, does the best work of anyone in the cast with seemingly no effort, and we probably won’t remember she was in this in a month. The film is a mixed bag both dramatically and as a piece of sensitive science fiction, and I was certainly never bored watching it. It’s more baffling than terrible. At least the actors don’t try to put on Czech accents, so I guess I should be grateful.

The film begins streaming March 1 on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.