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Spaceman: Generations

While watching Adam Sandler’s new Netflix movie, Spaceman, I was repeatedly struck by something oddly familiar about the story. The film is based on Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 book, Spaceman of Bohemia. Sandler plays Jakub Prochazka, a Czech astronaut on a solo mission to investigate an astronomical anomaly that unexpectedly appeared in our solar system four years ago. When Jakub’s mission begins, all we know about the anomaly - now called Chopra - is that it is a cloud made of some kind of space dust created by a passing comet past the orbit of Jupiter. 

When we meet Jakub, he’s six months into his mission and just days away from reaching the anomaly. His only substantive tether to Earth is his principal handler within the Space Agency, Peter (Kunal Nayyar). Jakub does have a direct line of communication set up at home with his pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), but he hasn’t been able to reach her for some time. Unbeknownst to Jakub, this is because the Space Agency has intercepted a message from Lenka telling Jakub that she’s leaving him. 

The film is explicitly about loneliness, which is not unusual for a story about a singular figure traveling alone in space; but it’s a particular kind of loneliness at play here. Jakub’s feelings of estrangement are of his own making. Even if he isn’t aware that his wife has already left him, he is beginning to realize what prioritizing his ambitions over his wife’s needs (and their nascent family) has cost him. He is in the midst of all he ever thought he wanted - he’s a cosmonaut in space, on the verge of a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of the universe - but he feels further away than ever from what might actually make him happy. 

The film is an odd mix -  the tone, themes, and performances are all serious and grounded, but many of the story’s elements are heightened or fantastical. The core of the story is this relationship drama between two people who aren’t talking to one another, but the film’s setting is this odd alternate universe where the Czech Republic has its own space program, and its nearest rival in this historic mission is the equally unlikely South Korean space program. There are numerous elements like these throughout the film that signal to the audience that, while the story is meant to be emotionally grounded, some of the story’s details are going to get a little far out there. So, it isn’t as much of a surprise as you might expect it to be when a giant telepathic spider (voiced by Paul Dano) appears on Jakub’s ship just as its making its final approach to Chopra. 

Here, despite the film’s hard sci-fi aesthetics, we realize we’re dealing with a much more abstract story. We learn that this spider-like creature was drawn to Jakub and his vessel, having been vaguely aware of humans as a thing, but curious to see one up close. The spider, which Jakub will come to name Hanuš, takes a specific interest in Jakub and his loneliness. And, through some combination of its telepathic abilities along with the amplification of that ability by its proximity to the Chopra cloud, Hanuš can show Jakub memories of his time with Lenka in order to try and see where their relationship went wrong.

It’s when Hanuš starts to explain to Jakub what the Chopra cloud is that I began to feel like I had seen a version of this story before. Hanuš describes Chopra as a ribbon of particles left over from the beginning of the universe, a temporal anomaly traveling through space, where past, present, and future intermingle. This would also be a fair description of the Nexus from 1994’s Star Trek: Generations. 

Now, that by itself would just be an interesting coincidence, but as Jakub’s story unfolds I realize that Star Trek: Generations is also principally about two people, specifically two men, grappling with late-in-life realizations that their career-minded drive to explore the universe cost them the chance of having a stable family life back on Earth. 

Star Trek: Generations was the first Star Trek film to feature the characters from the ‘90s series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was some concern at the time that there wouldn’t be an audience for such a film, so it was structured as a crossover event with the cast from the original Star Trek, who had already made six films of their own at this point. The combined cast would be too large to give everyone their own storyline, so the decision was made to focus on just the two captains, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart). 

In their respective time periods, both Kirk and Picard find themselves on missions that bring them in contact with The Nexus. In the case of Captain Kirk, he’s merely a visiting dignitary from Starfleet Command present for the launch of a new starship, the U.S.S. Enterprise-B, when it gets unexpectedly summoned to rescue a pair of ships that had become trapped by the energy ribbon. 

When we meet Kirk, he has come back out of retirement because he couldn’t handle civilian life on Earth. We’ll also learn that his return to Starfleet was the breaking point in a relationship with  Antonia, a woman he was seeing on Earth. To hammer the theme home, while Kirk is first touring the Enterprise-B, he’ll meet Demora Sulu, the daughter of one of the original series characters. Kirk will even say out loud, “When did Sulu find time to have a family?” To which he is pointedly reminded of having said himself, when something is important to you, you make the time. It won’t be too long after this exchange that, during the rescue mission, an explosion will pull Kirk out of the ship and, we will later learn, into the Nexus. 

We meet Picard, some 80 years later, having just learned that his only remaining living relatives - his brother Robert, and his young nephew René - both died in a fire back on Earth. He’ll eventually confide to a crewmate that part of his solace in never having had a family was knowing that at least the family would live on through his nephew. With that loss, he finds himself mourning, not only his brother and his nephew but also the family he never made for himself. 

How Picard winds up in the Nexus is kind of needlessly complicated to get into, since it’s really just a mechanism to get him and Kirk into the same story, but one of the people who was rescued by the Enterprise-B all those years ago, an El-Aurian named Soran (Malcolm McDowell), was actually pulled out of the Nexus, and has been working to get back there ever since, no matter the cost. Soran’s evil plan works, an entire solar system is destroyed, but Picard is also pulled into the Nexus. 

Now, we’re pretty far afield from Spaceman at this point, but I assure you this is building to a point about how these two films end, and what I believe they’re trying to say about narratives around men and families. What we’re meant to take the Nexus to be is some kind of space-time anomaly that can create for anyone held within it the exact reality they always wanted. That is the endless experience of all of your dreams coming true, which is apparently so seductive that we accept that Soran would be willing to destroy millions of lives in order to get back to it. 

Not so for our two captains, though. Picard and Kirk each find themselves in their idea of Heaven - Picard in a Victorian house about to have Christmas dinner with his wife and children, and Kirk at his ranch making breakfast in bed for Antonia. Just as in life, neither of them has trouble walking away from this dream, though. Using the temporal powers of the Nexus, Picard finds Kirk, and they both return to the moment when they can stop Soran. They’re both making the right call, but it’s again rejecting all of the experiences of family life for another space adventure as if part of the moral of the story is that this is what heroic men are expected to do. 

It’s with this idea in mind that we come back to Jakub and Hanuš. Hanuš shows Jakub where he went wrong in his relationship with Lenka. It wasn’t just that he left his pregnant wife back on Earth while he went off to space for a year. Hanuš shows Jakub all the ways he hadn’t been present for  Lenka during his career, including, when she miscarried a previous pregnancy. Jakub has this breakthrough. He manages to get Peter to bring a phone to Lenka so she can at least hear him say that he’s realized just how he’s let her down. Jakub seems like he’s recommitted to putting Lenka first from now on if she’ll have him. And yet, we find he’s almost immediately willing to throw it away for one more space adventure. 

Having shown Jakub all these things, we learn that Hanuš is dying. Part of why he stumbled across Jakub in the first place was he was on his way to Chopra to die. Hanuš leaves the ship so he can spend his last moment among the particles from the origin of the universe. And Jakub puts on his spacesuit and follows him into the cloud. Having just committed himself to his family, he willingly consigns himself to what should be certain doom by leaving his spaceship to follow the giant telepathic space spider he’s just met into an as-yet unstudied energy cloud. And to do what, exactly? To give Hanuš some un-asked-for company for a few more minutes before they both die?

Jakub and Hanuš share their moment, but Jakub lives just the same. He’s rescued by that South Korean spaceship that was right behind him. He’s even able to call Lenka from their ship where they have a final bittersweet exchange that leaves the story open-ended regarding whether they’ll get back together when he returns to Earth. For our purposes, this mirrors the endings of Kirk and Picard. Kirk dies stopping Soran, never to return to Earth to try and make things right with Antonia. And although Picard successfully saves millions of families, all he is left with of his family in the end is a half-burnt photo album. 

It’s hard not to come away feeling that the ending of each of these stories echoes the mindsets that led each character to their unhappy circumstances. Each narrative begins with a man unsatisfied with his life, having foregone the experience of having a family in favor of space adventures, and each narrative ends with a man foregoing the experience of having a family for another space adventure. It’s almost like the idea is that having a family is incompatible with adventure, and it’s probably an idea like that which led each of these characters to their unhappy circumstances in the first place.


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and three children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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