lucy in the sky review

Lucy in the Sky seems like it has something to say. It’s on the tip of its tongue: a message about being disconnected with life, about how the terrifying and beautiful vastness of space can make one feel infinitely small, about Natalie Portman‘s bad wig. But despite stunning cosmic visuals and a tour-de-force performance from Portman, Noah Hawley‘s highly anticipated debut feature is as devoid of meaning as the emptiness of space.

Very loosely based on the true story of Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who notoriously wore adult diapers during her cross-country drive to attempt assault against a woman in a relationship with a fellow astronaut, Lucy in the Sky follows Lucy Cola (Portman), an astronaut who starts to lose her grip on reality after her return from a lengthy space mission. Reunited with her simple-minded husband (Dan Stevens, made mousy with a giant mustache and slicked back hair), and her cozy wood-paneled home that came out right out of the ’70s, Lucy feels restless and dissatisfied with the mundanity of life on Earth.

“You got to see the vast celestial everything and it blew your mind, so now nothing makes sense,” Jon Hamm’s dashing fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin tells her after noticing her discontent. The two embark on an ill-advised affair, with Lucy becoming more enamored with Mark even as he grows disinterested and starts eyeing another young up-and-coming astronaut (Zazie Beetz). Their bad split and a traumatic event with her mother (a deliciously prickly Ellen Burstyn who at one point gets to rattle off the line, “all that astronaut dick has made you soft”) sends Lucy on a downward spiral that leads to her getting taken off the next space mission.

Lucy in the Sky is a stylish film — visually and verbally. Hawley shows off his flair for dialogue that he’s shown in his screwy FX drama Fargo with oh-so-clever lines like one character’s description of Mark as “a divorced action figure who likes to go fast.” But Hawley’s most stylish flourish with the film is its constantly shifting aspect ratio. In the vast expanse of space, Lucy’s world is a 5:3 widescreen. But as soon as she lands back on Earth, her world literally begins to shrink; in this case, to a claustrophobic 4:3 Academy ratio. It’s an intriguing — if frequently distracting — conceit, especially because Portman gives such an internalized performance, that allows us some insight into her headspace. Most of the film takes place in that boxy 4:3 ratio, expanding only when Lucy trains for her mission or experiences the ephemeral joy of backyard fireworks. It’s telling that during her trysts with Mark — which she acknowledges are a shortcut for her to feel something akin to the wonder she felt in space — the aspect ratio never widens beyond that 4:3 box, clueing us, the audience, into a secret that even Lucy isn’t totally aware of. The frequent birds-eye views also give us a distancing feeling, as if Lucy herself is detached from her body.

But Hawley’s biggest creative gamble is also the film’s biggest weakness. We know Lucy’s headspace, but to what end? Lucy in the Sky makes some half-hearted attempts to gesture at some greater meaning and to prod at the tenuous dividing line between grounded reality and the “vast celestial everything,” but the film comes up empty. Hawley even betrays his own visual language when he briefly takes us out of Lucy’s perspective and into Mark’s, inserting an odd scene in which a despondent Hamm drinks while watching footage from the 1986 Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts. The sequence, still in that boxy 4:3 for whatever reason, is at best baffling, at worst exploitative. It’s a scene that makes no sense in the wider scheme of Hawley’s probing at the fragility of the human experience.

Perplexing imagery like this is sprinkled throughout the film. One particular montage set to the Beatles’ song that inspired the title, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” uses the Spike Lee dolly shot to unnerve, but feels like a late-act attempt to pile on more visual flourishes that amount to nothing. A ham-fisted metaphor with a nest of wasps that hatch out of a butterfly chrysalis is thrown in because…Lucy was broken from the start? But perhaps that is Hawley’s whole schtick. His visually dazzling, and ultimately empty FX drama Legion was ground zero for the filmmaker’s “throw everything at the wall” approach. But nothing sticks.

Portman, for her part, is excellent in the role of the spiraling woman — it’s a part she’s familiar with, having won an Oscar for doing just that. Even bogged down with a borderline-cartoonish Southern accent and a bad bowl cut, she gives humanity to the blank-slate of a character that Hawley’s camera dances around. We can see that she’s driven and mission-oriented to the point of madness, only excelling when she has a target in mind. She relentlessly works to get on the space mission, and when that fails, she relentlessly works to get revenge on Mark and Erin (Beetz), now his girlfriend. When she takes her niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson), a character needlessly invented for the film, on a trip to the grocery store, she lists off items as if she were a woman on a mission (though notably, forgets the diapers that made this sordid story so memorable in the first place). But Lucy’s high-energy drive and her drifting disconnect with reality never cohere, nor does the film’s half-baked gesture to tie Lucy’s breakdown to sexism in the workplace.

Lucy in the Sky can’t escape the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of the true story from which it takes its inspiration, which derails the cerebral psychological drama that Hawley seems to want to make. Its tawdry third act comes blasting in as if from another movie, making all of Hawley’s creative flourishes and ponderous dialogue all for naught. Lucy in the Sky is visually arresting with a great performance at the center, but it’s ultimately just showy without anything to show for it.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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