Adam Sandler’s Spaceman is a Velvet Glove Delivering an Emotional Gut Punch

If Tarkovsky’s Solaris was a cinematic contretemps to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then Spaceman can be seen as Johan Renck’s riposte to Solaris. Both Solaris and Spaceman (from the novel ‘The Spaceman of Bohemia’ by Jaroslav Kalfař) move away from the source material. Stanislav Lem was always frustrated by Tarkovsky’s interpretation. Despite changes made, the Solaris is a fundamental work of science fiction and human psychology. Spaceman is a post Velvet Revolution work. Jaroslav Kalfař was born in 1988 in Prague, learning English from pop culture science fiction. Knowing some of the history of Bohemia; especially the era of the Spring Invasion in 1968 by the Soviet Union is immensely helpful to unlocking Spaceman’s thesis, but not essential.

Adam Sandler stars as Commander Jakub Procházka, a cosmonaut from the Czech Republic. He has been chosen to collect a sample from a cosmic phenomenon and worldwide Fata Morgana; the Chopra Cloud which is nestled between the Earth and Venus. By the time the audience meets Jakub he is months into his mission, having strange, drugged dreams (Dvořák’s ‘Rusalka’ is a key motif), and is trying to keep both his tin can and sanity intact.

Spaceman avoids the tropes that space travel is in any manner glamourous. The ship, the Jan Hus 1, is barely functional. Janus, guided by mission engineer, Peter (Kunal Nayyar) has learned that he can only request one or two repairs, and those repairs go towards making the craft a social spectacle and sponsor branded piece of propaganda. His glorious purpose, to be the first to collect a sample from the Chopra Cloud, is foremost about putting the free market Czech Republic into the space race.

To say that Janus isn’t coping is an understatement. He’s missing his pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan) but their communications via CzechConnect have been increasingly distant. Although he doesn’t yet know it, because his Earth handlers including Commissioner Tuma (Isabella Rossellini) have hidden the information from him, Lenka has already left him. Although from her perspective he left her years ago.

Nearing the end of his mission in getting closer to the Chopra Cloud to collect the sample, along comes a spider: a man-sized alien creature eventually named Hanuš (Paul Dano). The curious and almost unflappably polite arachnid was drawn to Janus because of his intense distress and loneliness. Finding the human tribe somewhat inscrutable in places, Hanuš the lone explorer decides that Janus needs his help.

Although the setup for Spaceman appears to be an absurdist comedy, what the audience gets is far more akin to Ad Astra or an E.M. Forster novel. Janus, who is dubbed by the public on Earth as “the loneliest man alive,” (watch for a cameo by Sunny Sandler) is carrying the weight of guilt and anger towards his father, an informant for the Komunistická strana Československa. “A good man who did the wrong thing.”

Jakub insists he does not need the help of Hanuš, and has resisted psychological assistance in the past. The spider who calls him, “Skinny Human,” delves into Jakub’s memories to see why he is haunted and depressed. As he does so, he uncovers a man who chose to run away from Earth and everything which could potentially harm him. His ambition to restore his family name, to be more than the hated son of an informer, and to be one of the first to go far beyond the clouds meant he rarely stopped to look at anyone else. Most particularly he refused to look at Lenka. Lenka, the bewitching beauty he met at a costume party, who he fell in love with immediately, is the person he closed himself off to the most. His selfishness meant that even during the most tragic time in Lenka’s life he was unavailable. Every promise he made he broke. The film gives the viewer an omniscient perspective. We see Lenka as she leaves Prague and goes to her mother’s (Lena Olin) house. We hear her bitterness, her disappointment, and how she feels she is saving her own life by no longer being an adjunct to Jakub.

“I go where you go, Spaceman” was what she said to Jakub when dressed as a Rusalka. A Slavic folkloric water sprite associated with fertility, then being an unclean spirit later in the 19th century who would lure men to their deaths. Rusalki were created as a punishment for any woman who drowned herself, whether it be over unfaithful spouses, unwanted pregnancies. Jakub is of course in his Spacesuit. They meet in an underground space with a pool. He has a fear of water from being almost drowned. She is inherently connected to it.

Hanuš pulses through Jakub’s memories. He relives the things he does not want to see. The words he should have spoken but did not. Hanuš offers him some sage wisdom, but also a few “You are a self-absorbed fool, and this is all your own doing,” moments. Jakub learns what he should have already known: he valued the wrong things.

Spaceman is melancholic and entirely sincere. The sincerity might rankle some who were hoping for more jokes (there are jokes). And although the idea of being connected through the infinite; the things we cannot comprehend is not a new conceit, the purpose of the film is to reiterate the miracle of finding anyone with whom you can share an authentic emotional bond.

Chasing stardust, glory, and fame is nothing if there is no one who understands or cares about you. Jakub might indeed be going through psychosis, but Hanuš is precisely the conscience he needs. Adam Sandler excels once again in a serious, sad man role. Carey Mulligan is always a luminous presence. Yet it is Paul Dano’s voice work as Hanuš which is our guide. The universe is as it should be. One can step into “the beginning,” which is also “the end,” and see it all. Yet, the creature named after an apocryphal blinded clockmaker — the creator of the Prague Orloj, the oldest working astronomical clock in existence — looks for comfort, balance, and love. Hazelnut spread tastes like his destroyed home.

Colby Day’s script can be a touch oblique. Understanding Bohemia, its history, myths, and general oddness certainly will improve the film. Yet, under Johan Renck’s direction, paired with the Max Richter soundtrack, the retrofuturist production design, and Jakob Ihre’s weightless cinematography, Spaceman is a velvet glove delivering an emotional gut punch.  Rest now, Skinny Man – you have earned it. Go gently into the “beginning” Hanuš. Where there is love, there is life. “I promise.”

Director: Johan Renck

Cast: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Paul Dano

Writer: Colby Day, (based on the novel Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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