‘Spaceman’ Has an Identity Crisis. So Do Plenty of Sci-Fi Space Movies.

by The Technical Blogs


Not long into “Spaceman,” Adam Sandler’s new somber sci-fi space movie on Netflix, it becomes quite clear that it’s struggling to channel something greater, something better, something already respected.

Sandler’s character, a Czech cosmonaut named Jakub, has spent many months alone in a ship investigating a mysterious purple cloud — alone except for an alien arachnid called Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano). Hanus speaks to Jakub — about fear, guilt, pain and the origins of the universe — in a soothing yet stilted tone, evoking the voice of HAL 9000, the conflicted A.I. entity in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” from 1968.

The central themes in “Spaceman,” loneliness and disconnection, are fundamental in many cerebral space movies including “2001,” but perhaps more so in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Soviet space drama, “Solaris,” about a small crew of scientists who come mentally undone.

“Spaceman” also has some “Gravity,” some “Interstellar,” some “First Man,” some “Ad Astra,” the New York Times film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote in her review.

Many middling sci-fi space movies have faced such fates: measured not by what they are but by what they wished they were. Often these films have the potential to be brilliant. “Spaceman” was directed by Johan Renck, who won two Emmys in 2019 for his work on the HBO mini-series “Chernobyl”; Sandler, while a comedian, has soared in complex dramatic roles, notably in “Uncut Gems” and “Punch-Drunk Love”; Jakub’s wife is played by Carey Mulligan, who is up for a best actress Oscar this month for “Maestro.”

What is toughest to forgive, though, is that “Spaceman” commits the biggest movie no-no of all: It’s boring. “It is not fun-bad,” Wilkinson writes. “It is maudlin-bad, belabored-bad and also pretty boring-bad.”

Here’s a look at three common ways that big-budget, star-studded sci-fi space dramas go wrong.

Where better than outer space to excavate our terrestrial anxieties, unfurl dystopian yarns, scrutinize the existence of god or alien life, and bemoan the dark side of technological progress. And there are few sci-fi space movies that don’t at least dabble in life’s bigger questions.

“2001: A Space Odyssey,” a visually eye-popping quest into the unruly potential of the human brain from before the dawn of humanity to the edges of infinity, has long been the standard by which all others are measured. Movies like Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” from 2014 (“a sweeping, futuristic adventure driven by grief, dread and regret”), and Robert Zemeckis’s “Contact,” from 1997 (“the most visually intoxicating ‘trip’ movie ever made”), have succeeded in capturing some of its magic while pushing into different corners of existential thought.

But countless other films have tried in earnest to do the same, to underwhelming results, including “Spaceman,” with its obvious, uninspired dialogue; “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” Peter Hyams’s 1984 sequel to “2001”; and Claire Denis’s “High Life,” from 2019. “Event Horizon,” from Paul W.S. Anderson, was largely panned by viewers and critics when it was released in 1997, but has since been re-evaluated and gained a cult following.

“Moon” — Duncan Jones’s low-budget 2009 mediation on claustrophobia and loneliness, starring Sam Rockwell as a man wrapping up three years on a remote mining station with only a computer companion as company — also channels “2001” and is an apt comparison for “Spaceman.”

But where “Moon” succeeds, “Spaceman” flounders — as did “Oblivion,” Joseph Kosinski’s ambitious film from 2013 starring Tom Cruise. As our chief film critic, Manohla Dargis, put it, “Oblivion” was “stitched together from bits and pieces that evoke numerous other, far better far-out tales and ideas, conceits and characters,” including “Moon,” which she called “elegant, elegiac.”

Despite its best efforts, Dargis writes, “Oblivion” “never transcends its inspirations to become anything other than a thin copy.”

It doesn’t take much to derail an audience’s suspension of disbelief, snapping them out of a film’s fantasy, and that shift is often the result of overreliance on C.G.I.

In “Spaceman,” Sandler glides convincingly through the craft, which looks as realistic as any onscreen. But Hanus may have generated more empathy from and connected more authentically with audiences — and with Sandler, who in reality acted opposite a tennis ball — if he had been a puppet. There have been many unforgettable movie creatures, ones that were filmed alongside actors, brought to life in this way: in “Labyrinth,” “E.T.,” “The NeverEnding Story,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and, the gold standard of sci-fi space outings, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” from 1979, in which the chestburster alien and the android reveal were both created through puppetry.

By “Alien: Covenant,” in 2017 — the third in the franchise to be directed by Scott — he opted for C.G.I. in place of the novel practical effects that helped to make the previous installments sci-fi canon; while grand, the resulting visuals were flat, unnatural and not as scary.

Hanus seemed primed for the puppet treatment, with his humble movements, many searching eyeballs and lanky, reaching legs. Worsening the issue is that the arachnid has an artificial sheen somewhat reminiscent of 1998’s intergalactic adventure “Lost in Space,” which had many alien spiders and some of the worst C.G.I. in the genre, exacerbated by a lighting issue that made it obvious the creatures were awkwardly inserted in postproduction.

In her review for The Times, Janet Maslin suggested that “Lost in Space” was trying to copy “Alien” and “Star Wars,” and called it ambitious for including 750 special effects; but she wrote that the technology was dispensed frenetically and “not yet capable of creating lovebird chemistry between William Hurt and Mimi Rogers.” Ouch.

Grappling with earthly love and heartbreak, romantic and familial, from the cosmos is well-trod thematic territory. But there’s a fine line between thoughtful exploration of intimacy and a cringe fest. When done effectively, and with restraint, it has the capacity to resonate and enlighten, like in “Solaris” and “Interstellar.” Pixar’s 2008 animated film “WALL-E” might be among the few that manages to introduce courtship and love effectively, though between robots, not humans. The critic A.O. Scott called it a “disarmingly sweet and simple love story.”

In “Spaceman,” Jakub’s wife is miserable, pregnant and ready to leave him. We see their relationship in real time and in flashbacks. With the help of Hanus, Jakub comes to terms with his role in ruining their relationship. “In short,” Wilkinson writes, “this is a movie about a guy realizing he’s been terrible and vowing to change, thanks to a spider-therapist.”

While worth a hefty sigh, it’s not as bad as perhaps the biggest miss of this kind in recent years: Morten Tyldum’s 2016 intergalactic romance, “Passengers,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as a journalist aboard a commercial spacecraft on a 120-year voyage to a faraway pioneer colony, and Chris Pratt, a mechanical engineer who, ultimately out of selfishness, wakes her up far too early.

It’s “a love story whose attempt to be an interstellar ‘Titanic’ eventually falls flat,” Stephen Holden wrote, calling it “a banal, formulaic pastiche of dozens of other like-minded space operas.”


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