The new film from Johan Renck, efficiently titled Spaceman, offers two central conceits. The first: that a vessel en route to a cloud of purple dust, somewhere in the region of Venus, might be visited by a benevolent alien with the ability to guide a human through their own memories. The second: that the Czech Space Agency’s chief representatives, on earth and off, might be played by Isabella Rossellini and Adam Sandler. Besides directing the music video for David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” Renck is best-known for Craig Mazin’s TV show Chernobyl, on which he helmed all five episodes. With Spaceman Renck borrows that show’s aesthetic: the sickly green-and-yellow color palette, the retro-futurist Soviet designs, the stifling solemnity. One thing you won’t find in Chernobyl, however, is Hanuś: an arachnid with Paul Dano’s voice, a body the size of a labrador, and six unblinking eyes, each as wide and curious as WALL-E’s.

Sandler stars as Jakub, an astrophysicist on a solo eight-month mission to investigate what Earth’s scientists have called Chopra: the mysterious residue of a passing comet now visible as a purple bloom in the night sky. At film’s start Jakub is six months into his journey and starting to wonder if his marriage to Lenka (Carey Mulligan) is falling apart. When Hanuś first shows up, Jakub thinks he’s losing it (as he very well may be) but quickly gives in to the alien’s innocent charms. He shares his rations and christens him after his hero: a Czech blacksmith believed to have designed Prague’s famous astrological clock. Soon, the unlikely pair are bonding over Hazelnut spread and the lingering regrets from Jakub’s childhood and marriage. Like the film’s many predecessors, Spaceman is a story of how far a person might go to escape their traumas––a journey outward that leads to one within––yet even if Renck is out to give us his Solaris, the director knows better than to take this conceit too seriously.

As ever, Sandler’s casting is worth noting: the actor’s deals with the streaming giant have been impressively mercenary at times, but that seems to finally have tilted the other way. Before Uncut Gems, Sandler’s dramatic output was scarcer than that of Daniel Day-Lewis. Since then, Hustle, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah (in which his daughters both starred), and the animated film Leo have all been warmly received by audiences and critics. Could the actor be tempting something as drab as respectability? Affecting some hardened Mitteleuropean consonants here and there, the actor plays Jakub as one of Sandler’s sweet, downtrodden types, essentially a straight man to Dano’s Hanuś, moping about in ball shorts as his new friend gives earnest observations on his customs and behavior. It’s not unappealing.

The film is based on Jaroslav Kalfar’s 2017 novel Spaceman of Bohemia, where the Czech author imagined a parallel timeline in which his country, freshly released from communism, is looking to re-enter the world stage with a bang. Jakub is a man volunteering for a mission the rest of the world deemed too dangerous, yet his interests are strictly personal: his dad was a prominent communist and the man wishes to restore honor to the family name. There are shades of Jaroslav Hašek and Miloš Forman here: something lovingly Czech about that blend of stately and soulful concerns, of hubris and misplaced national pride. I particularly liked that Jakub’s moment of crisis comes just six months into his trip––this is often a genre where people sleep for decades just to get from A to B.

Such idiosyncrasies don’t always translate––Max Richter’s name on the credits might tell you all you need to know about the tone––yet in Dano’s arachnid the film has its safeguard against maudlin sentimentality. Hanuś’ abilities not only allow him to converse within Jakub’s memories but to occasionally appear in them, making him a highly effective and enviable emotional support animal. We could all probably do with one.

Spaceman arrives on Netflix on Friday, March 1.

Grade: B-

No more articles