Arts movie review

Spaceman fudges an impossibly cosmic setting to half-heartedly deliver a deeply human drama

Adam Sandler plays a depressed spaceman whose mission to explore the stars is interrupted by a failing marriage and a giant spider.



Directed by Johan Renck

Written by Colby Day

Based on “Spaceman of Bohemia” by Jaroslav Kalfar

Starring Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Paul Dano, & Kunal Nayyar

Released February 20 (Berlinale) & 23 (Netflix), 2024

Rated R. Now streaming on Netflix.


Note: I’ll be testing a three-tiered rating system with this review — a rating for Insight to marvel at artistic and narrative inventiveness and the vision of the work’s messaging, a rating for Implementation to regard the technical achievements involved in the making of the work and the execution of the director’s vision, and a rating for Interest to judge how overall enjoyable the work is as independent from its creative accomplishments. The three elements will then be averaged to consider the work’s overall rating.


Insight: ★★★★

Implementation: ★★

Interest: ★★★

We open the film with a man wading through a forest stream, geared in the uncomfortable get-up of a baby-blue spacesuit emblazoned with the Czechoslovakian flag. This is a fitting image for a man ever-obsessed with his dreams of seeing beyond Jupiter, never taking his eyes off the vast sky, never truly seeing the spirited world around him. It’s a dream; he wakes up and is wrapped in a sleeping bag in a compact cabin of Jan Hus 1, a spaceship commanded under the fictional Czech space program.

(The real-world Czech Republic has never launched its own space program, although a Czech cosmonaut reached space under the Soyuz 28 mission in 1978. To date, there have been two registered Czech cosmonauts.)


Act One

Spaceman begins with Czech cosmonaut Jakub Procházka (Adam Sandler) on Day 189 of his solo mission to the fictional Chopra cloud, a nebular mass of purple space dust that mysteriously appeared in Earth’s sky four years prior. He is being radioed in from Earth by his handler and mission control technician, Peter (Kunal Nayyar), to present for a broadcast recording hosted by European Space Agency commissioner Tuma (Isabella Rossellini). Jakub feels the weight of his mission and, at the midway point of his journey to the Chopra cloud, sees himself as a hero.

The Czech mission races against a contingent from South Korea, both groups vying to be the first to investigate the Chopra cloud’s origins and its mysterious appearance.

Yet, Jakub’s desire to commit to his sworn task is impeded — his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) hasn’t connected with him on the proprietary asynchronous video-calling system CzechConnect in days (a set-up not unlike the way Cooper and Murph communicate in Interstellar). A device was set up in the couple’s bedroom back on Earth for them to remain in contact despite the millions of miles of distance, although he is unable to focus on his work as his wife has seemingly gone missing. Back on Earth, a video message from Lenka intercepted by mission control technicians declares that she is going to leave him; they decide not to let the message go through. Jakub remains oblivious to his deteriorating marriage.

Things begin to go wrong on the ship: Jakub finds many of the cameras installed for mission control to keep tabs on the spacecraft broken, his toilet buzzes a loud and distracting sound, and the ship’s lights flicker on and off. He begins to be weighed down by the stress of his mission, and he remains unable to reach his wife. Increasingly psychotic hallucinations fill his head as strange occurrences haunt the ship. Unease is setting in.

It’s a fantastic set-up for a fear-inducing, anxiety-provoking suspense flick. At this point, a third of the way into the film, I’m half-expecting the narrative to see Jakub—in a mimicry of a classic psychological thriller’s first act—be slowly driven to the edges of insanity in his isolation in the deep of space. (I had come into the film entirely blind, with no prior knowledge of what the story was supposed to entail.)

Spaceman offers many moments of eerie quiet as it builds up its suspense-filled atmosphere. Musicless close-ups of its characters going about their life and work give a glimpse into their emotions only through the tenseness of their frowning expressions, and the wrinkle lines etched across their faces. Strain and stress grip the film’s squat cast in a multitude of ways: Jakub in the dread of his months-long solitude, Peter in the concern for his cosmonaut’s worsening mental health, and Lenka in the unpredictability of her new-found freedom.

Jakub’s hallucinations manifest as a sort of giant anthropomorphic tarantula (voiced by Paul Dano). (The scene where they first meet, when Jakub walks into the ship’s bathroom and is surprised by the spider-creature’s presence, reminds me somewhat of the final scene in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy). At first, his hallucinations are sparing: brief sights of the creature. Then, he begins to hear it talk. 

At some point, its hallucinated presence is so unnerving that Jakub locks himself in the airlock and deploys a decontaminating agent all throughout the spacecraft. Despite Peter’s growing concerns about his mental health, Jakub is smart: he knows not to let him know about the spider. Jakub knows not to compromise the integrity of the mission, as Peter tries to push forward in trying to ascertain Jakub’s true state.

Peter is smart, too; he keeps Jakub in the dark about the actual situation regarding Lenka, fearing a disruption to the mission. At the same time, an intertwined subplot follows Lenka as she seeks solace and joins an útočiště (a so-called “place in the country for pregnant women who are alone,” as Lenka describes the commune-like refuge to her mother).


Act Two

As Jakub is forced to interact with the spider creature, he reluctantly begins to accept it into his life. Interestingly enough, the spider isn’t menacing or mindlessly aggressive; it’s actually rather intelligent. Jakub names it Hanuš, recounting the story of the 15th-century clockmaker who supposedly built the Prague astronomical clock (the legend of which, in the real world, is now known to be false). The two start to discuss various topics as they start to see themselves in one another. Hanuš, claiming itself a telepathic extraterrestrial, adds another layer to Jakub’s situation by inducing flashbacks of his past with Lenka.

Sandler and the spider debate the philosophy of their existence; they talk about life and the universe, and they talk about Lenka, which Jakub is initially resistant to, pushing back against a kind of tarantula-facilitated talk therapy. The pair offers each other a level of empathy that is not truly attainable by anyone other than those who know the solitude of space to its deepest extent. (At this point, it’s still kind of unclear if Hanuš is a hallucination or a real creature.)

In its exploration, Hanuš begins to learn its own version of empathy as it connects with Sandler’s depression.

During this time, we learn that the spider (as it claims to be) is a vastly old entity, a creature that had witnessed “The Beginning” (a.k.a. the Big Bang). It is of an arachnid race whose planet was destroyed by another group of aliens named the “Gorompeds.” Hanuš was able to escape and became fascinated with humans after passing by Earth. It eventually found its way to Jakub, attracted by his unique situation and intrigued by his loneliness.

The film weaves between suspense and drama, unable to find a balancing point between its portrayal of psychosis-inducing solitude in the deep darkness of outer space and a romance-centered drama between two “star-crossed lovers.” (The film is very direct in its imagery, going so far as to play an excerpt from Rusalka — a tragic opera that is literally about star-crossed lovers. Hell, Hanuš even references that irony when Jakub plays the song in-scene.)

Somewhere along the way in the film’s deeply muddled second act, we also learn more about Jakub’s past and the context behind his failing marriage. His father was a pig farmer and informant for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and was murdered when his status was revealed. Jakub hasn’t forgiven his father for leaving him. We also become privy to the consistent neglect that Jakub shows towards his wife, best exemplified in a memory when she suffers a miscarriage and he ignores her, still wrapped up in his cosmonaut training.

Despite all of these revelations, Jakub remains committed—more than to his wife or his newfound friend or anything else—to his mission. Jakub continues to break every promise to everyone but himself. He will reach beyond Jupiter, even if he loses everyone he’s ever loved along the way.

“When you’re alone, you think. She’s had too much time to think,” a character in the film says, referencing Lenka’s decision to leave her husband. Jakub, despite it all, still fails to grasp the irony of his situation: he is so centered on how “alone” he is without her, still unable to contact her, that he doesn’t realize she’s been alone for years — even in the times they were together.

Hanuš sees the unconscious cruelty of his friend and decides to leave, too. “My interest in you has expired,” it says to a frustrated Jakub.

Following this exchange, Jakub comes to the startling realization that maybe he was the problem all along. In a point of rapid character growth that ultimately comes off as forced, Jakub comes to terms with the pain of the family and friends he had shunned for years — just as the climax of his mission arrives, and the Jan Hus 1 reaches the edges of the Chopra cloud.


Act Three

In a moment of extreme determination from a man with nothing to lose (and with the film realizing it has made nigh-zero narrative progress as it drags itself into its final act), Jakub very rapidly re-centers course on his mission while hacking into the CzechConnect and making amends through a telephoned apology to Lenka, who at this point has integrated herself into the community of the útočiště. “I have lived a life for all the wrong reasons,” he says to a mournful Lenka. Jakub recenters his guilt into attempting fulfillment and he reconciles with Hanuš.

Jakub’s personal development takes a backstage as the Jan Hus 1 plunges straight into the Chopra cloud, and the film tries to reframe itself as a sci-fi flick; as he tries to collect data to send back to Earth, the luminiferous particles and the extreme pressure of the nebula tear Jakub’s ship apart, and he makes the decision to abandon his mission and save Hanuš, who was suddenly ejected from the ship.

Jakub grabs onto Hanuš, and they barrel into the depths of outer space. For a moment, the poignant scene we see in Hanuš’s slow death by the Gorompeds (which turn out to be a species of tiny parasites that consume the arachnid from the inside out) and Jakub’s grief transforms the film into a proper sci-fi drama à la Interstellar. Along the way, he and the dying Hanuš fully enter the Chopra cloud and witness the “past and future,” a colorful explosion of particles and vibrations paired with all the sounds and sights he’s ever seen and will see.

The pair rocket into a wormhole and emerge into a thick crimson nebula. It’s a beautiful  and incomprehensibly cosmic sight, but all Jakub can think about is his estranged wife, Lenka. It’s everything he’d ever dreamed of; for years he’s wanted nothing but to see beyond Jupiter, but now he just wants to come home.

Hanuš dies, and Jakub is left alone in space. He and Lenka call for each other, and Lenka becomes aware of her husband reaching out for her as a stray Chopra particle floats beside her. Jakub is picked up by the South Korean mission that was trailing behind Jan Hus 1, and over the phone, the estranged couple reconciles.

And with that, the film closes.


Closing Thoughts

Despite its outlandish and cosmic theming, Spaceman drops its celestial facade to render a deeply human struggle between two people who want to be in love.

As Spaceman concludes its nearly two-hour runtime, I can’t help but feel disappointed. I have really mixed feelings about this film—its message is fantastic, its theming is exquisite, its pacing is messy, and its execution is downright abysmal.

I don’t mean execution as in the technical aspects; other than the fact that Hanuš’s model on occasion reminds me of an oversized Lucas the Spider, the mechanics of the final product were rather outstanding for a Netflix original. (The film had a budget of $40 million.) 

Spaceman’s cinematography was quite unique, playing very well into the theming of space: gravity-defying shots of scenes set in Jan Hus 1 and out in deep space provided a fascinating and, at times, immersing viewing experience. Set-wise, I love how it uses its space constraints in the Jan Hus 1 quite effectively. Visual effects work was similarly stunning — if a bit derivative — in the CGIed scenes of outer space, gravitational lensing effects during flashbacks, and the model for Hanuš.

When it comes to Spaceman’s setting, I could wax poetic for hours on end. The setting is played very close to the chest throughout the film; we get bits, but the scarcity of clues we get about the situation only further feeds into the mystery surrounding the film. I love the bureaucratic ’80s-esque imagery evoked by the various scenes we get of mission control and other parts of Earth, and it feels almost intentional to contrast the analog worldliness of the beige-and-cyan Earth and the futuristic cosmicism of deep space. From the cyan-tinted metal control panels to the large blocky white phones, I am utterly obsessed with the set design of Spaceman

It’s distinctly dystopian in nature—Jakub’s mission, under the European Space Program, is backed by a large contingent of corporate sponsors. In one scene, Jakub is asked to recite the slogan of a sponsoring cleaning company (“Bomba is 99.999% effective in killing any and all airborne microbial elements. Even in space, don’t let germs ruin your day. Bomba, away!”) before being permitted to deploy a decontaminant to remove his arthropod hallucination.

The subdued and restricted nature of the film’s score, as well, and the many moments of eerie silence backed only by the electrical hum of the Jan Hus 1’s gadgetry—most prominent in Spaceman’s suspense-centered first act—is equally commendable.

What I found painful regarding the film’s execution, instead, was the superficiality in the actual implementation of the film’s foundational vision. Spaceman is thematically messy, and its constant shuffling between sci-fi flick to (briefly) psychological thriller to divorce drama to space adventure becomes frustratingly distracting by the film’s midpoint.

When a single film tries to imitate the metaphysical queries of Freud’s Last Session (2023) between an emotionally absent man and a gigantic spider — whose chilling introduction to the story and soft-spoken, emotional-yet-distant demeanor pegs more as Life (2017) than My Neighbor Totoro (1988) — the resulting product looks a little closer to the interesting but meaningless mess that is White Noise (2022) than a number-one hit. (Disappointingly, Johan Renck, responsible for the miniseries masterpiece Chernobyl and the opening episodes of Vikings, served as the director for Spaceman.)

I will admit that Spaceman addresses its characters’ worldly struggles in a very mature way, even if not perfectly. When portraying the pain and hurt of Jakub and Lenka, the film excels in a surprisingly relatable way. When addressing the broken nature of their relationship, the film avoids exacting justice on Jakub by painting him as a mean, neglectful narcissist but instead portrays to a realistic degree how his career ambitions and personal history involuntarily drove conflict with Lenka. When trying to cobble together a cohesive denouement, the film appropriately depicts a shared understanding between Jakub and Lenka to work together on repairing their relationship rather than finding it miraculously fixed forever.

Still, even this is muddled: the film’s half-hearted attempts to center mental health into the conversation (such as Peter’s attempts to show concern for Jakub’s well-being and offer to source psychiatric help for the cosmonaut) end up shallow and unfruitful. Not particularly well, Spaceman addresses to the vaguest extent the issue of astronauts’ mental health and the stress they accumulate from their line of work. This comes across more as a pandering last-minute addition to more neatly fit the ethos of the film (a weird “coming-of-age” for a middle-aged man with a successful career and a disastrous marriage) — and in Hollywood canon, it feels largely like Netflix’s way of quietly course-correcting for a generation of overly ambitious, career-obsessed young adults with failed personal relationships.

Despite the plot being about Jakub learning to attend to others and not just himself, almost every single interaction in the film is ultimately centered around Jakub and his own growth. A painful lack of detail on anything other than the estranged couple, from Peter and mission control and the origins of the Chopra cloud to the mystery behind Hanuš’s dead race and the alien Gorompeds (“you never asked about me,” Hanuš says to Jakub in one heartrending scene), just further demonstrates a fatal miscalculation on the part of the writers’ room to anticipate the expectations of their viewership. The film doesn’t hit, and rather than cheering on Jakub’s and Lenka’s reunion, I am left with a list of never-to-be-answered questions about literally every other part of the narrative.

Ultimately, Spaceman is a hollow film that masquerades as a philosophical exercise by posing a lot of hard-hitting queries about the nature of the universe and human interaction—and ultimately doesn’t deliver.

To quote Hanuš: “Everything that begins must end, skinny human. Even the universe itself.” The same can be said, I think, for Spaceman. And while I enjoyed it while it lasted, I’m not unhappy that it’s over.