Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan are cast adrift in Netflix’s sluggish sci-fi


Source: Netflix


Dir. Johan Renck. US. 2024. 106mins

Shot three years ago, Spaceman, like its astronaut protagonist played by Adam Sandler, has been floating around in outer-planetary limbo. Finally making landfall at the tail end of the Berlinale before heading to Netflix on March 1, its rich collective creative pedigree –  from Sandler to co-star Carey Mulligan, Chernobyl director Johan Renck making his directorial debut and the source novel ‘Spaceman Of Bohemia’ – far outweighs what’s on screen: dreary, sluggish sci-fi which will have most viewers banging on the doors for an escape pod.

Imaginatively realised

It is imaginatively realised – the one-man spaceship at its centre is an ingenious creation from production designer Jan Houllevigue. There is even an alluring creature on the craft, a six-eyed spider called Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) who seems to know the secrets of the universe. Or he may simply be a manifestation of Jakub’s (Sandler) anxieties after six months of isolation. But for a production which looks to the skies, Spaceman draws some tediously reductive lessons from the universe: this Czech astronaut should have been nicer to his pregnant wife Lenka (Mulligan) while on Earth.

If sci-fi dealing with a man’s – possible – hallucinations and regrets about his relationship in space are what audiences still need in 2024, Tarkovsky’s Solaris forged that path in 1972 and Steven Soderbergh remade it with George Clooney three decades later, if the Russian-language version is considered too old and crackly by now. And if it’s preternatural disembodied voices, try HAL, although Dano’s tones are enticingly otherworldly: perhaps Hanus might get his own hairy spin-off. There may be nothing new on this planet, but Renck’s film unfortunately makes it feel like there’s nothing new in the galaxy either. 

As adapted from ‘The Spaceman of Bohemia’, a much fuller book written in English by Czech writer Jaroslav Kalfar, Spaceman joins Jakub on Day 189 of his one-man mission to reach a mysterious dust cloud on the outskirts of Jupiter. It’s easy to communicate with Earth, and even to give a live press conference organised by Commissioner Tuma (Isabella Rossellini) where a child in the audience asks him ‘are you the loneliest man in the world?’.

That’s likely, after Lenka breaks up with him by satellite in a recorded transmission which Commissioner Tuman withholds for his mental health. So Jakub frets around the spacecraft, wondering where she is and how to fix the toilet in this retro-futurist craft. As the spaceship’s internal cameras start to malfunction, Renck switches to flashbacks of Jakub and Lenka’s relationship in soft-focus, and we track her as she makes her way to some sort of convent for pregnant women in the Czech countryside – followed by Commissioner Tuma. In the meantime, Jakub has discovered Hanus the spider, the film’s most appealing character, and their shared love for hazelnut spread.

Sandler has made a notable succes of several serious roles from Punch Drunk Love on through to Uncut Gems and Hustle, and his gravitas isn’t in question here, although his hollow-eyed spaceman sometimes seems too drained of life. Carey Mulligan gives it her best shot as a disaffected wife, left at home in Prague as Jakub tries to work off the guilt of his informer father by flying to Jupiter, and mightily pissed-off about it all. It’s just so hard to buy into Spaceman: it’s only likely to work if you have pre-paid the monthly Netflix subscription. And the low-energy tone, punctuated by a Max Richter soundtrack, doesn’t help.

Why are they all pretending to be Czech? That part of it is so puzzling, like a hangover from the days of the soft-money Europudding, yet this is Netflix – perhaps fast becoming the Europudding’s replacement. If a film is (mostly) set at the other end of the galaxy where an astronaut is about to leap into the unknown, why is there such a focus on his marital tiffs, tediously lopsided as Mulligan’s character is of course just a pregnant prop? Turning Hanus, an ancient being, into a relationship counsellor also seems to shortchange the mysteries of the cosmos. And six eyes, yet he persists in calling Sandler a ‘skinny human’? 

This is Swedish director Renck’s feature debut after a distinguished career on TV and extensive work on videos. Balancing the novel for feature length was always going to be a challenge; his flair for craft was, equally, always going to be a lure. Netflix is a good place to for Spaceman to bob about; the worst thing that can happen is audiences find Hanus, and that’s a discovery worth phoning home about.

Production companies: Tango, Free Association, Sinestra

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers:  Michael Parets, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin, Peter Kiernan, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Max Silva

Screenplay: Colby Day, from the book ’Spaceman of Bohemia’ by Jaroslav Kalfar

Cinematography: Jakob Ihre

Production design: Jan Houllevigue

Editing: Scott Cummings, Simon Smith, John Axelrad

Music: Max Richter

Main cast: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Kunal Nayyar, Lena Olin, Isabella Rossellini, Paul Dano