Inspired by the 2007 events when astronaut Lisa Nowak drove nearly 1,000 miles to attack a rival for another astronaut’s affection, Lucy in the Sky attempts to dive into the mindset of an astronaut who has trouble adjusting to her earthbound life after joining an elite group of men and women who have been to space and seen just how small and fragile the planet can be. Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, a Texas-born astronaut who has spent a lifetime as the best at everything. She is strong, a worthy role model for her niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) whose her father has abandoned her; and she’s a loyal wife to Drew (Dan Stevens), a lovable nerd who works in NASA’s public relations office.
After her short but deeply impactful time in space, Lucy returns only to find that the world around her feels small and insignificant. She has trouble roaming among civilians who have no idea what she has accomplished. Naturally, she turns to those around her, other astronauts who have or will experience what she has. And as she prepares for a much longer and more challenging upcoming mission, she starts spending more time with more senior astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) and a few of his colleagues (including ones played by Tig Notaro and Jeffrey Donovan), but eventually, Lucy and Mark begin an affair that seems to trigger and emotional timebomb in her.
It doesn’t help that Lucy’s husband is pressuring her not to go back to space and her relentless mother (Ellen Burstyn), who visits frequently, is the source of all self-doubt in her life. An adversary for Mark’s affections comes in the form of newer NASA cadet Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz, also seen this week in Joker), and although the two women start off as terrific friends, as soon as it becomes clear that Mark may be something of a ladies man, Lucy begins to unravel and make demands of him that are unreasonable, especially for someone who is still very much married.
To say that Lucy’s world begins to unravel would be an understatement, but that’s effectively what happens, and one would think that director Noah Hawley (the showrunner of such series as “Fargo” and “Legion”) would be the perfect fit for a story concerning a fluid reality, but something about Lucy in the Sky feels empty and off the mark. While Portman’s performance (and most of the performances) are generally solid, this seems like a strange story to tell in a semi-fictionalized form, because it’s almost as if the film is attempting to confirm a “weaker-gender” label on women. If you tell the story of the actual Lisa Nowak, and attempt to explain her insane behavior, at least you could point to the events of her case as your justification for telling the story, but since this is a slightly different version of that tale, it feels representative and cheapens the impact.
That being said, I like the way Hawley constantly repositiones the frame’s aspect ratio to make us feel as if reality wasn’t stable and perhaps even giving us a glimpse into Lucy’s state of mind. It’s a device that is rarely used, but for a psychological profile such as this, it makes sense and is effective. I also liked the way the story illustrates Lucy’s determination, including a harrowing sequence in which she risks drowning during a training exercise, rather that leave a task incomplete (her heartbeat remaining steady throughout). Of course, if she’d been in space, she would have died, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her. She is all about getting the job done no matter the consequences (assuming she’s even considered them).
Perhaps because we never get to know Lucy before her space journey, we don’t see her when the world makes more sense. We only hear about that person, and what we hear doesn’t sound that stable either. In a strange way, Portman’s strong performance here is part of the film’s problem. She stands out in surroundings that don’t rise to her level, and as a result, Lucy in the Sky is mostly a disappointment, because you can sense that this is a story worth exploring.
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