review

Spaceman review: Adam Sandler’s under-baked astronaut movie is an extreme therapy session

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
In Spaceman, Adam Sandler plays a repressed solo astronaut named Jakub.
In Spaceman, Adam Sandler plays a repressed solo astronaut named Jakub. Credit: Netflix

In the continuing misadventures of “Men would rather ___ than go to therapy” you can add to the list “Men would rather go to space than go to therapy”.

It’s not a new phenomenon but today there is a new entry in a canon that already includes Ad Astra, First Man and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only alone in the vast stretches of the universe and faced with their own mortality will men confront their emotional baggage.

Talk about extreme therapy.

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Spaceman is an Adam Sandler film but it’s not a ha-ha Sandler romp. It’s one of those few instances in which Sandler gives himself over to someone else’s storytelling vision, instead of hanging out with his mates on an island somewhere, roll the camera and have studios pay for their good times.

Adapted from Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar, Sandler plays a solo astronaut named Jakub. He’s midway through a mission to investigate a mysterious cloud in the far-flung parts of the galaxy.

Already alone for months in a gravity-free, cramped capsule, Jakub’s mental state is deteriorating. He runs on the treadmill, he chats to Peter (Kunal Nayyar) at mission control, and he sends back videos schilling the products of the mission’s brand sponsors. There’s an unrelenting, discordant sound coming from a piece of malfunctioning equipment and he’s not sleeping.

Spaceman is streaming on Netflix
Spaceman is an Adam Sandler film but it’s not a ha-ha Sandler romp. Credit: Netflix

With a scraggy beard, dark circles under his eyes and general body language that screams “defeated”, Jakub looks like the poster child for depression.

When his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) sends him a video message saying she’s leaving him, the mission’s director (Isabella Rossellini) holds it back. She won’t allow anything to risk the assignment.

Lenka’s cessation of contact with him comes at the same time as Jakub is nearing the space phenomenon. That’s when he sees a giant alien spider inside his ship. The spider is called Hanus (the voice of Paul Dano) and it calls Jakub “skinny human”.

The spider could be real (space is mysterious) or it could be a hallucination, manifested by Jakub as he struggles with his isolation. But its real function in the story is to trigger Jakub’s emotional journey as finally contends with his propensity to isolate himself even when he’s around other people, especially Lenka.

With artful flashbacks to moments of his and Lenka’s relationship, Jakub begins to understand why he couldn’t escape his Earth-bound problems by flinging off into space. Hanus is basically a therapist.

Director Johan Renck has predominantly worked in TV on the likes of Chernobyl, Bloodline and Halt and Catch Fire. Set mostly inside Jakub’s capsule or in rooms on Earth, Spaceman lacks the visual mastery of its predecessors. The muted colour palette also limits the scale of the colossus of space while the script is underwritten.

Spaceman is streaming on Netflix
Paul Dano voices Hanus, the alien spider which may or may not be real. Credit: Netflix

Sandler, as he always is when he steps outside of his genre (Uncut Gems, Punch Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories), gives a game performance. He’s wholly convincing portraying Jakub’s beats, but Sandler is not given enough material in this under-baked film that might have worked better as an episode of Black Mirror.

The isolation and challenge of space is rich territory for the weighty arcs of emotionally repressed characters, and it’s catnip for storytellers.

Brad Pitt’s character in James Gray’s Ad Astra (Max Richter, the composer on that film also scored Spaceman’s haunting soundtrack), was the paragon of compartmentalisation and as it turns out, shocker, he had deep-seated, unresolved daddy issues that came to the fore in the film’s climax.

Similarly, Ryan Gosling’s taciturn Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man seemed a picture of calm and collected, until he’s standing on the surface of the moon and experiences a profound emotional catharsis about his family and his losses.

As an aside, Chris Pratt’s character in Passengers was apparently so lonely he wakes up Jennifer Lawrence for some company. A deeply problematic move in a deeply problematic movie. That man needed therapy – as did its filmmakers who thought Passengers was a stirring romantic drama. It wasn’t.

As Barbra Streisand said, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world” – but apparently some men need the isolation of space to discover that. Therapy would’ve been cheaper.

Rating: 2.5/5

Spaceman is on Netflix from Friday, March 1 from 7pm AEDT

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