Written and directed by Noah Hawley, Lucy in the Sky stars Natalie Portman as Lucy Cola, a brilliant yet deeply troubled astronaut who begins to have an affair with the charming and handsome fellow astronaut Mark (Jon Hamm). But her deceptions in life and a feeling of emptiness after a major mission begin to weigh on Lucy’s psyche until she can no longer identify fantasy from reality.
Lucy in the Sky might be one of the most boringly strange films I’ve seen. Noah Hawley made a name as the creator and showrunner for the TV shows Fargo and Legion, both equally strange and wildly unique in their own right. He made his career by exploring dark ideas in visually and narratively different fashions, but Lucy in the Sky isn’t the kind of story that needs this approach.
The movie is loosely based on the true story of Lisa Nowak, a former astronaut and naval flight officer who was part of the 1996 NASA Group and was on board Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-121 mission in July 2006. In 2007 she was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping of U.S.A.F. Capt. Colleen Shipman, who was in a relationship with astronaut William Oefelein, with whom Nowak was also having an affair with the year previous. Oefelein was divorced in 2006, and Nowak was still married to her NASA contractor husband Richard T. Nowak, but they continued their affair until Oefelein broke things off later that year. In the public’s eye, Lisa Nowak’s entire reputation as one of only a handful of female NASA astronauts was destroyed, all for an adulterous relationship and uncontrollable jealousy leading to violent actions.
Lucy in the Sky takes this true story, strips it down to the core plot points but then engineers a reason for why Portman’s Lisa surrogate would do all of this. What the movie blames everything on is an adjacent-PTSD brought on by lengthy space travel, even though the actual case involved an array of mental health issues. In this attempt to make the events feel more cinematic, the filmmakers actually lose the sadness at the heart of the story in that a woman in NASA was allowed to continue in her activities without proper mental evaluation and rehabilitation, furthering a stigma against those who live with mental health problems that suggests it’s often external factors and not internal (biological) that cause mental health issues.
This is beyond the fact that the movie itself is rather over-directed and leaves you feeling confused rather than moved with the unfortunate journey into insanity, akin to another Natalie Portman performance in Black Swan. Noah Hawley in his most “Noah Hawley fashion” chooses to shoot the movie in 3 or 4 different aspects ratios, however they are all within the 4:3 ratio. What this means is that most scenes will be in the full 4:3 but the movie would randomly shift its top and bottom bars to simulate 1:85 and 2:39 without moving the bars left and right. Instead of crafting a flowing cinematographic experience that represents particular states of Lucy Cola’s character, it’s quite nausea inducing and painfully unnecessary. Even in a narrative context, the shifting ratios happen out of nowhere and completely against any intended emotional reaction from the audience, so we are left scratching our heads at all of this flash without real substance.
Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm and a stacked cast of actors including Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, and Ellen Burstyn, all try their hardest to elevate this material beyond its painful clichés, but all of them disappear from the story when its most convenient for Lucy to keep doing strange things without real explanation or logic, highlighting the clunky and uneven nature of Hawley’s script. Lighting-wise, this is a good-looking film that features an excellent score by Jeff Russo, but the narrative feels truncated into a 100-minute runtime whereas a miniseries extension could give weight to Hawley’s more lofty story ideas.
Everything after the opening scene served to confuse and bore me even more, with Lucy going from calm and collected to completely unintelligible without clear narrative need, and those emotions would be happening out of order with the story’s attempted flow. Lucy in the Sky is a confused mess of visual and story ideas that all feel like first-draft material or pitch-meeting notes and which needed a more careful guiding hand to land everything. Sometimes unique and bold visuals isn’t the best fit for a movie, particularly when we never really care about the people on screen.
Director: Noah Hawley
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz
Writers: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley