Spaceman review: Adam Sandler’s sweet Solaris riff

Cameron Frew
Adam Sandler in Spaceman

Spaceman is like if Solaris and E.T. had an eight-legged baby; its ideas may be simple, but what’s weightier than the power of love, a force from above, cleaning our souls?

“I go where you go, and I go where you go. That right, Spaceman?” Lenka (Carey Mulligan), the embittered wife of cosmonaut Jakub (Adam Sandler), echoes in his dreams; once a romantic vow to be one another’s north star, later a tainted promise to follow a man whose eyes are always upturned to skies, but never gazing into her own.

Johan Lenck’s Netflix film contributes another sad dad to the sci-fi genre – only this is a father-to-be, with a pregnant Lenka left to her own devices while Jakub drifts through the cosmos to the Chopra Cloud, an “astonishing” glittering mist on the outskirts of Jupiter that’s “haunted” Earth’s skies for years.

He’s halfway through his solo mission to discover its secrets when Lenka delivers a brutal message to the Czech space agency: she’s leaving him with immediate effect. Alone, 500 million kilometers away, left to wander the possible ruins of a life left behind, a soothing, all-knowing voice emerges in the form of a mysterious arachnid: Hanus (Paul Dano).

Spaceman is a cure for arachnophobia… almost

In what world could a giant, hairy spider that invades a spaceship in deep space be considered comforting? This comes from the POV of a life-long arachnophobic: miraculously, even masterfully, Spaceman gets away with it, thanks to comfort-blanket voice work from Dano and delicately employed, seamless CGI.

Hanus’ movements are never sinister, even when he’s forced to assert himself. The initial sight of him huddled in a corner (amusingly hugging a whirring toilet suction tube, because the sound calms him) isn’t unlike Enemy’s horrific final shot – but the fear leaves you like an exhale, and you’ll soon find yourself caring for him more than you ever imagined (normal spiders can still f**k off, though).

Jakub’s dynamic with the spider proves to be rather moving, and consistently droll; there’s a light-handed deadpan charm to all of their interactions, not dissimilar to Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. But he’s more than an oddity: Hanus unfurls and communicates (perhaps a little too neatly) all of the film’s conflicts and mysteries, whether it’s the true nature of the cloud or Jakub’s trauma, both relationship-wise and what’s rooted in his past.

It’s adapted from Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel, the essence of which is effectively captured in Colby Day’s stripped-down screenplay. There’s some terrific writing here: in one scene, Hanus asks, “You long for your mate only once she leaves, where was this yearning when you were together?” In another, Jakub asks Jenka if he’s not allowed to dream. “When you dream, you leave,” she responds, brutally.

To its slight detriment, it feels like an over-extended short story; Jakub’s anxieties are cyclical, and the movie borders on feeling repetitive as it coasts towards its poignant, well-pitched conclusion. That’s a positive, too: it plays on the same paranoia and uncertainty as Solaris, while also being reminiscent of John Lewis’ compact, heart-rending Man on the Moon advert. “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed,” Stanisław Lem wrote in 1961, accurately summarizing Jakub’s journey.

Paul Dano is the star of Spaceman

Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) in Spaceman

Without Dano, the film doesn’t work. Another lesser version would have cast a more stately voice, like Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones – but that gravitas would have been distracting, with Dano’s soft, curious cadence one twinkle away from making every word sound like a lullaby.

Sandler’s dramatic chops should not be underestimated. Uncut Gems was the peak of his talents, one that leaned into his peerless sense of the lovably obnoxious – but Spaceman is an altogether different, yet just as considered performance. He’s almost always on screen, and the Sandman’s presence – vacant, despaired, and content all at the same time – is deeply felt. Jakub isn’t a charismatic man, and the fact he often feels unknowable is the point. Mulligan is superb, layering Jenka as a complex character that’s immediately at odds with the viewer; she’s absolutely one of our most captivating actresses.

Lenck’s direction (already known to be top-tier from his extraordinary navigation of Chernobyl) is sturdy, even versatile, bolstered by Jakob Ihre’s cinematography and strong art direction; the cloud was designed to evoke the unease and beauty of blustery nautical paintings, at which it succeeds. The presentation of Jakub’s flashbacks is particularly striking: the lens is always distorted, and the audio is muffled and echoey, rather than the immaculate memories we too often see in fiction. The emotion of a memory is what’s vivid, not the event.

Max Richter’s score is disappointing; both un-hummable and crying out for a distinct melody. This is the composer who created one of the most devastating pieces of music ever written – ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ – and this feels like the scraps of his work on Ad Astra; if only he took us to the stars again.

Spaceman review score: 4/5

Slight, but affecting, Spaceman doesn’t chart new ground in sci-fi. But its message is quietly wondrous: for all that we don’t know about the universe, love is the one faith (and dream) we can all experience.

Spaceman hits Netflix on March 1.