Netflix’s Spaceman review: slow, sad science fiction

Real aliens are difficult to deal with because they are so, well, alien. The best realized ones have distinct cultures, biology, and belief systems that set them apart from humanity and are therefore difficult to understand. The alien in the Netflix movie Spaceman is a recent example: a giant spider with writhing tentacles, a disturbingly human mouth, Paul Dano’s soothing voice and the ability to experience time non-linearly. And yet the strange creature is also very recognizable. He is curious and observant and prone to comfort to relieve stress; Sure, he’s scary, but I kind of like him. And combined with a remarkably subdued Adam Sandler as a burned-out astronaut, his presence makes for sad and soothing science fiction.

Directed by Johan Renck and based on the novel Astronaut from Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut named Jakub (Sandler) on a solo journey to explore a strange phenomenon somewhere near Jupiter, the Chopra Cloud. Jakub has few people to talk to; his supervisor Peter (Kunal Nayyar) is always in his ear to keep everything on track, and he can video chat with his wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan) thanks to a device that looks like an ’80s arcade machine – but he is physically isolated. It only gets worse as phone calls with Lenka become more and more rare. This leads to spending a lot of time alone in the silence of the room, thinking.

And then, suddenly, he is no longer alone. Arrived very early Spaceman, Jakub is joined by a mysterious alien whom he eventually names Hanus (Dano). The giant spider has a fascination with humans and spent an indeterminate amount of time learning our history, language and customs. But he is especially attracted to Jakub: as a solo explorer, Hanus is attracted to the lonely space explorer. And once Jakub gets over the shock of, you know, a huge talking spider suddenly appearing in his otherwise empty world, the two quickly connect.

Hanus has the ability to see into Jakub’s thoughts and memories, and he uses this to explore his past, but most importantly to understand his deteriorating relationship with Lenka. It’s a little bit Eternal sunshine of the spotless mindexcept that Hanus takes on a kind of therapist role: from his detached perspective, he can use details from Jakub’s life to figure out how and why things went the way they did, and then be brutally honest about his findings. Spaceman starts off as a cute but weird buddy story, but eventually turns into a raw exploration of loneliness and coming to terms with our own personal shortcomings.

With much of the film taking place with two characters in the confines of a small spaceship, the performances are a big reason why the film works so well. Sandler sounds a little strange at first – he has a sort of Czech accent, but then again he doesn’t – but he shows a new side of himself here, one that isn’t downright crazy or a tense bundle of nerves. He is quiet and reserved, with the wild look of someone struggling both mentally and physically. Dano, meanwhile, is alternately cool and warm, with an otherworldly point of view (his race does not experience guilt, for example) that sometimes becomes sentimental. (It turns out that Nutella is a lot like a certain grub delicacy from his homeworld.) The two get along well: Jakub wants to ignore the truth, while Hanus can’t stop bringing it to the surface.

Ultimately, the story returns to its core sci-fi mystery Spaceman does a good job of tying these threads together in a way that feels natural and ends on a hopeful note, without falling into a cliché happy ending. It’s sad, yes, but in a cathartic way — and it almost makes you want to hug a talking spider. Even if Hanus never felt like it.

Spaceman now streaming on Netflix.

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