piders headlining high-concept movies seems to be the in-thing these days. Unlike Madame Web, an appalling addition to the superhero movies, Spaceman, starring Adam Sandler and an age-old cosmic space spider, is a bona fide step up.

The improvement, though, isn’t by leaps and bounds. Like most space dramas about lonely astronauts with existential crises, philosophical ruminations and unexplained space-phenomena — there are too many of these — Spaceman barely makes it to the upper end of the middling category.

Spaceman is “adapted” from the novel Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfa. It has been extensively reworked by screenwriter Colby Day to fit a predictably sterile narrative. Reading the novel’s synopsis, I prefer Day’s version which, according to a quote by Adam Sandler, “was tremendous” and that “broke [his] heart.” It has these moments, as fleeting as they are.

Sandler plays the Czech cosmonaut Jakub, who has been sent on a one-man space mission to the outskirts of Jupiter, where a strange purple cloud has mysteriously appeared four years ago. The only other space mission to the cloud is by the South Koreans but, with a delayed start, they are behind in this space race.

Spaceman adds to the trippy, existential-crisis-driven stories about space, time, bad decisions and unexplained alien phenomena that defy feeble human minds

Days before Jakub makes it to the interstellar cloud, a heavily sponsor-backed press conference, conducted by the programme’s commander Tuma (Issabella Rossilini), throws the cosmonaut off when a sixth grader named Anna asks him what it feels like to be the loneliest man in the world. The curve ball hits him hard in the gut.

Jakub, you see, is the loneliest man in space — and perhaps the known universe. His wife Lenka (Carrey Mulligan) wants to divorce him because he hasn’t been a good husband. The guilt haunts him and makes him delusional. One of his delusions takes the shape of a giant spider that telepathically talks to him (the voice work comes courtesy of Paul Dano).

The spider, whom Jakub names Hanuš, surprisingly doesn’t trigger this writer’s arachnophobia — he is good-natured and kind of cute, in his somewhat creepy crawly way as he plays psychiatrist to the deeply conflicted, extremely melancholic spaceman. The bulk of the film is their exchanges and Jakub’s flashbacks.

Spaceman compels me to re-watch both versions of Solaris — the 1976 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and the one produced by James Cameron in 2002, starring George Clooney, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh — and Ad Astra, The Fountain and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the trippy, existential-crisis-driven stories about space, time, bad decisions and unexplained alien phenomena that defy feeble human minds.

The re-viewing is not so much for comparison, as it is to compare the bloated, holier-than-thou mindset associated with the lonely-man-in-space sub-genre of movies; and of course, their long-winded and middling storytelling.

Despite stellar work by Sandler — he is a gem in dramatic roles — the so-so performance by Mulligan, and the okay-ish direction by Johan Renck (known for the critically acclaimed series Chernobyl), Spaceman is slow and pondering, with the kind-hearted Hanuš being its second saving grace (the first is Sandler).

It is a good thing then that the film is a Netflix original production. One can turn the playback speed to 1.5x, if one feels that the scenes don’t lead anywhere.

Streaming on Netflix, Spaceman is appropriately rated suitable for ages 16 and over — though the teenagers, addicted to the snappy world of minute-long social media reels, will likely fall asleep during the 108-minute runtime of the film

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 10th, 2024

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