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In 'Spaceman', a deep space explorer deals with the earthly problem of loneliness


Jakub is a Czech astronaut soaring through deep space alone on a daring mission to collect unexplained particles that might be a clue to the origins and future of the universe. He carries enormous responsibilities. But as a sixth-grade student asks him on a video link from Earth...


SUNNY SANDLER: (As Anna) My name is Anna, and I read that you're the loneliest man in the world. Does it make you sad to be so far away?

ADAM SANDLER: (As Jakub Prochazka) Well, I am some 500 million kilometers away. And yes, this is a solo mission. But I know I'll be coming back soon. What I'm doing is for everyone back home, and that makes me very proud. No, I am not the loneliest man in the world.

SIMON: We'll see about that. Adam Sandler is Jakub the astronaut. Carey Mulligan is Lenka, his wife, who is expecting. And Paul Dano is the voice of Hanus - a character we'll try to explain - in the new Netflix film "Spaceman" directed by Johan Renck. It's based on the novel "Spaceman Of Bohemia." And Johan Renck, who won an Emmy for his work on the miniseries "Chernobyl," joins us now from New York City. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHAN RENCK: My pleasure. Very nice meeting you.

SIMON: Very good to meet you, sir. In leaving Earth, is the astronaut trying to leave his past or his life to a degree, also?

RENCK: I don't think so. Actually, I think rather the opposite. I think this is what he believes is his purpose, so to speak. I think he's an ambitious but also slightly vain and somebody who has issues with confusing ambition with sort of narcissism and vanity in terms of whatever that ambition might bring you.

SIMON: So much of this story, while it's set in space, is very mundane and earthbound. The toilet leaks (laughter). The astronaut has to eat with his finger out of a jar. He spits up. And he's sad and lonely.

RENCK: People want to think that this is a science fiction film because it's in space, but it's not. This is much more of kind of trying to depict sort of the human condition when it comes to relationships and the trials and tribulations that each individual had to deal with, you know, when it comes to balancing their own wants and needs with the wants and needs of your partner. And what this film is doing is obviously just kind of dragging it to its extreme by having one part of the relationship 500 million kilometers away on a solo mission in space and the other one being on Earth trying to figure out, you know, a reasonable future of their relationship and so on and so forth.

But the thing is, like, there's no traditional science fiction mechanics in this film, and it doesn't sort of abide to those rules. It's much more a poetic study based on this book, which has to do with, you know, exploring themes on loneliness and, you know, relationships. But also, the idea of that you can correct any mistakes you made in life and start anew if you're prepared to do that. This is some aspect of like, deal with it and move on, I think, is an important thing, and I believe in that.

SIMON: Well, a conventional film about two lovers who are away from each other, but there's also, I mean, a 6-foot-tall spider...

RENCK: Yes, of course, I mean...

SIMON: ...Which some of us would consider vaguely science fiction. Oh, talking spider - did I mention that? - with Paul Danos voice.

RENCK: Fair enough. To some extent it has, you know, those elements. We're dealing with an alien, but this is an alien that is from the beginning of time. And the reason it's a spider is something we can talk about, I think, because, you know, it hasn't, obviously, abided to the same rules of evolution as we have.

SIMON: I mean, we call him an alien, but we're aliens to him, it must be noted, I should think.

RENCK: No, but exactly that.

SIMON: Yeah.

RENCK: But still, to some extent, our spider has sort of developed for billions and billions of years. And I think, you know, this spider shape he assumes is something that he has - you know, I don't think he has a physical form in all reality. I just think he assumes this form to make sense to Jakub. He's just - he's so evolved, Hanus, that it's like you and I trying to communicate with a ladybug or something like that. And he's so evolved that he's just trying to figure out, like, what means of communication is going to work with this very primitive human.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask a question.


SIMON: This is taken from a well-regarded novel. And I know it's a novel, and this is the story. But I found myself asking, important mission into the stars, huge ship - why didn't they just send a bunch of astronauts like the seven they do on the International Space Station? Would they really send just one person?

RENCK: Yeah. Well, I mean, there's a couple of answers that one can consider for that, one of them being that it's such a high-risk mission, this thing is. Like, so why sort of expose more than one person for these dangers, you know? The second thing could be that our Jakub, in his ambition and his sort of vanities - he says, like, I want this to be a solo mission, you know? He wants all the glory on himself, you know? That's another version of it. The third thing is it's like any sort of hero's journey. You know, when you send that knight out to kill the dragon, many times, he's alone, isn't he? Like, why wouldn't you sound like a company of knights to kill the dragon? Why is there one guy doing it, you know? So I guess it's kind of the license we have in telling stories in which we can construct things to suit the purposes we want, you know?

SIMON: There's much sadness and loneliness in the film, but there's also a glimpse of hope - isn't there? - that there's something in their lives that might endure?

RENCK: No, no, massively. And that's kind of what I think, you know, what I see right now in a lot of responses around the movie - the most exciting but also terrifying place on Earth, which is obviously the internet. But what I keep seeing is so many people who are like, oh, I saw this movie. This was exactly what I needed right now because I kind of was in a place when I felt there was no hope - I'm exaggerating now, but, you know - when there was no hope, and then I see this movie, and I get filled with this sense of, there is always hope. And like Hanus says in the film, you know, hope - that's what your kind, you know, houses. It's that that's the special aspect of humanity is that we can always find hope and everything.

SIMON: Yeah. Johan Renck. His film "Spaceman" is on Netflix now. Thank you so much for being with us.

RENCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.