Sandler as Spaceman: Czech science-fiction novel gets drowsy Netflix adaptation

Based on the promising debut sci-fi novel of Czech writer Jaroslav Kalfař, Netflix’s Spaceman makes for bland and easily forgettable viewing.

Jules Eisenchteter

Written by Jules Eisenchteter Published on 08.03.2024 14:00:00 (updated on 08.03.2024) Reading time: 5 minutes

Based on the promising debut sci-fi novel of Czech American writer Jaroslav Kalfař, Netflix’s Spaceman, starring American movie star Adam Sandler in the lead role, makes for a bland and easily forgettable viewing.

About seven years ago, Jaroslav Kalfař made a noted entry with his debut English-language sci-fi novel Spaceman of Bohemia. While not a masterpiece in the genre, the book introduced a young writer with a distinctive voice and style and was largely praised as a well-crafted, thought-provoking, introspective, and philosophical journey to the far reaches of outer space.

The same sadly doesn’t apply to its Netflix adaptation, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month and is now available on the streaming platform since March 1.

The Sandman in space

Regardless of the source material, the movie – partly filmed in locations around Prague and Central Bohemia – was seen as holding some promise, at least on paper.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Johan Renck, better known for his work on the award-winning mini-series Chernobyl, Spaceman stars Sandler, who, like it or not, and from Punch Drunk Love to Uncut Gems, has long proved his worth as an actor who can deliver quality dramatic performances.

Sandler is joined by an appealing supportive cast, not least of all British actress Carey Mulligan, Italian actress Isabella Rossellini, or Swedish actress Lena Olin, the latter also starring in another now screening Czech-interest movie One Life. The entire space odyssey is supported by a score created by no other than celebrated German-British composer Max Richter.

Meandering in space

But like its protagonist, Spaceman is adrift in the gravitation-less void of deep space, floating around aimlessly towards a pretty and nebulous cloud of particles whose advertised mystery-revealing significance is, when all is said and done, neither mysterious, revealing, nor that significant.

Spaceman starts midway through the one-year solo space journey of Czech cosmonaut Jakub Procházka, manning by himself the Jan Hus space shuttle towards the far reaches of our solar system beyond Jupiter, with the task of investigating an ominous interstellar purple cloud of particles.

Apart from sporadic broadcasts with nosy earthly citizens and frequent communication with Mission Control, Jakub is lonely. So, when his pregnant wife Lenka (Mulligan) decides to break up with him from half a billion miles away, Commissioner Tůma (Rossellini) takes the liberty to censor the message to shield the lonesome astronaut from heartbreak instead of giving him excuses for his wife’s absence from their daily interspace calls.

Despite the subterfuge, Jakub senses his wife breaking away from him. It’s not long before his sanity does the same. Enter Hanuš (voiced by American actor Paul Dano), an intergalactic human-sized spider who – whether real or the product of Jakub’s broken psyche – appears alternatively curious about, sympathetic to, and revolted by the lonely spaceman’s sadness, despair, and self-pity.

Inside the decrepit and often malfunctioning Jan Hus space shuttle, Spaceman gives us dull, monotonously predictable, and overexplained pseudo-philosophical discussions between a not-too-likable Jakub and his well-meaning spider-therapist – who appears able to enter telepathically into Jakub’s subconscious, memories, and deep-buried feelings.

A tale of Czech oddities

As they slowly make their way towards the Chopra cloud, which Hanuš teases as containing the answers to the mysteries of the universe and made up of particles from the beginning of time and space, the duo sets on killing time by unraveling Jakub’s daddy issues and feelings of guilt and shame for having sacrificed his marriage in the pursuit of fame and intergalactic adventure.

Back on Earth, a tragically underdeveloped Lenka – to no fault of Mulligan’s acting and, as some pointed out, suffering a similar fate as her character in 2023 romantic drama film Maestro – is reduced to the neglected and abandoned wife who either loves her husband or doesn’t love her husband. She is given no independent life, dreams, backstory, or aspirations of her own.

Her relationship with Jakub remains similarly underwritten, making it sometimes difficult to understand how those two ended up together in the first place and why they would or wouldn’t want to work things out in their current predicament – which happens to be the central piece of the story.

An underwhelming finale

In a rather anti-climactic last sequence unfolding at the very heart of the Chopra cloud, the lonely spaceman finally comes head-to-head with a truth that a few sessions of couples’ therapy might plausibly have uncovered for a cheaper bill than an outer space mission.

Asked about the movie’s meaning and whether the six-eyed spider was real or imaginary, director Johan Renck pleaded subjectivity: “Any art lies in the eye of the beholder. Whatever floats your boat; there is no truth to these matters”.

Open endings and multiple interpretations are fine. But in the case of Spaceman, it seems brought about by laziness and haziness rather than the result of a deliberate artistic choice.

Despite good acting performances and some interesting visual elements, the movie’s weak script, transparent dialogues, and drowsy tempo make it difficult to find its footing.

The few scenes that might have brought some much-needed comic relief – like when an over-empathic Hanuš starts binge-eating comfort food after being infected by Jakub’s depressive state – are drowned in the otherwise bland and subdued spiral of sorrow and self-pitying.

All in all, Kalfař’s interesting and promising first science-fiction novel of self-discovery did not get the movie adaptation it well deserved. But from a recurring Rusalka motif to Sandler and Mulligan’s barely perceptible Czech accents, there might still be a few Czech-interest oddities that could spur you to stream it on a calm evening.

What other critics write

  • Robert Daniels for “In a ruminative film like Spaceman, which is about learning to move on, to care for another, and to redefine yourself before it’s too late, then it’s fitting that the idea of ‘the Sandman in space’ isn’t to reduce to a cheap tagline, but means something real and genuine is about to occur.”
  • Siddhant Adlakha for IGN: “Aesthetically accomplished, but emotionally dull and philosophically banal, Spaceman is a science-fiction misfire. Despite a stellar dramatic performance from Adam Sandler and numerous ideas that ought to have worked, the end result is the tale of a man lost in space, who finds nothing and learns even less."
  • Alissa Wilkinson for The New York Times: “Some bad movies were never going to be good. Other bad movies never even tried. But Spaceman is that exquisite, rare third thing – an awful movie, a very bad movie indeed, whose lousiness was almost certainly not apparent while it was in production."
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