Monday 4 March 2024

On demand: "Spaceman"

Belying its straight-ahead title, Spaceman is a strange one. It's not so odd that the artist formerly known as Stakka Bo - the Swedish director Johan Renck - should have chosen to follow his outstanding work on TV's Chernobyl with an adaptation of Spaceman of Bohemia, Jaroslav Kalfař's well-reviewed 2017 novel. What's peculiar, possibly perverse, was the decision to film it as a megabudget Netflix option, with the central role of Jakub Procházka, lonely astrophysicist orbiting the moons of Jupiter, occupied by no less a figure than Adam Sandler. To be fair, Sandler takes the assignment wholly seriously. As well as working up some sort of Slavic accent, he credibly suggests the pallor, lethargy and general dishevelment of a uniquely isolated individual learning his marriage is crumbling while living miles from home in a clapped-out tin can with malfunctioning toilet. As in Chernobyl, Renck has a sharp eye for conspicuously careworn Iron Curtain-era production design; here, he tethers that design to the inner workings of a spiralling, unravelling protagonist. (Any honest man will admit they have at some point made their home in a comparable squalor.) Within the haphazard ranks of the Sandler canon, Spaceman is roughly explicable as 2007's Reign Over Me in zero gravity. And yet nothing - not even a line or two in a film review - can truly prepare you for the sheer strangeness of the scene in which Jakub realises he has company up there after all: namely a giant space spider who functions like an emotional support pet and talks like a therapist. (Paul Dano provides the creature's eerily calm tones.) Ladies and gentlemen, now we really are floating way out there, suspended somewhere between news reports of Michael Collins (the pilot left behind in the Apollo 11 command module while Messrs. Armstrong and Aldrin golfed on the moon, emotively dubbed "the loneliest man in the universe"), the fiction of Franz Kafka, and the legend of Robert the Bruce. I warned you it was all a trifle bizarre.

Famously, 2019's Brad Pitt vehicle Ad Astra was sabotaged to some degree by studio Fox, juicing up writer-director James Gray's largely interiorised scenario - centred on an astronaut working through daddy issues - with setpieces involving marauding space apes. Spaceman feels like the moodpiece Gray might have turned in had the Fox execs left him alone; in places, it's not so far from a Solaris (either version) reconfigured for streaming purposes. For starters, much of what we see is apparently taking place inside the Sandler character's head. No-one at mission control clocks the spider: an unnervingly precise CG creation with Honey Monster eyes, it serves chiefly as a repository for Jakub's fears, and a means of getting our guy to talk and reconnect. These stratospheric sitdowns prompt flashbacks depicting how Jakub met, wooed and distanced his wife (Carey Mulligan), and glimpses of his father's torturous relationship with the Communist Party, the sort of subplot that traditionally bolsters acclaimed European literature but seems incongruous in a Netflix Adam Sandler movie. Max Richter's stilled score - the sonic opposite of Hans Zimmer's recent parping - reminds you Richter once wrote a symphony specifically orchestrated to lull the listener to sleep; Renck looks to have made it his mission to see how far a movie can travel on ambience alone. The answer, I think, is surprisingly far, although Spaceman plays as so weird it's difficult to grasp what its ultimate metric of success would be. This is unarguably a very male vision of the cosmos, its stellar women (Mulligan, Lena Olin as her mother, Isabella Rossellini as the chef de mission) mere satellites revolving around the protagonist, and yet this narrow focus allows it to be oddly potent on the subject of self-induced male solitude. Of all Sandler's films, this is the one most likely to languish unfinished in the "continue watching" folder, and yet Spaceman may equally end up beloved of those of us who had any time for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Fair play to its leading man, observed taking a wilder swing than he ever did as Happy Gilmore: if you'd told me as late as 2015 - the year of The Ridiculous 6 - that Sandler would soon be seen finding sincere solace in the limbs of a sentient space arachnid, I still wouldn't have believed you. Honorably strange, and sometimes transfixing with it, Spaceman is a gamble surely only a streamer would now be prepared to take.

Spaceman is currently streaming on Netflix.

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