In 2007, astronaut and U.S. Navy Capt. Lisa Nowak was arrested in Florida. She was charged with attempting to kidnap an Air Force captain due to an apparent love triangle involving another astronaut. She became an instant media sensation due to these sordid details eclipsed the fact that just seven months earlier she flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery and operated robotic arms on the International Space Station. Apparently false claims of her wearing an astronaut garment designed for space travel in order to reach her destination without stopping for even a bathroom break led to her being dubbed “the diaper astronaut” on late night talk shows. It was the end of her career and a black mark on NASA’s image.
These are the basic details that inspire Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky, and we do mean inspire. For that is exactly the word used during the film’s opening moments, which stress that Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is a fictional character and not the infamous astronaut of those 2007 headlines. Unfortunately, it does not seem to know or understand exactly what its own story is or how to express the agony of the woman at its center.
Played with a Southern twang and crisp briskness by Portman, Lucy is introduced in the film the moment her world turned upside down. Literally so since the opening sequence is a stunner where Lucy is drifting in a spacesuit with Earth above her. Down (or up?) there it’s night, and the continents are aglow like sparkling gems. Obviously evoking the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” this is one of the few moments in the film where Hawley’s visual playfulness evokes a sense of awe capable of blowing our collective minds. Which is why Lucy is immediately so bored when she returns to her humdrum life in Houston with husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a literal weak-wristed NASA PR man, and niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson).
After seeing the vastness of the universe, domesticity, and even daily NASA tests, feel “small.” Perhaps that is the reason she begins an affair with the space agency’s closest proximity to a playboy, Jon Hamm’s Mark Goodwin. But that’s unknowable, really, since Lucy doesn’t seem sure about much of anything now other than she is driven to break the formality of a life that’s always been as rigid as her matriarchal grandmother (Ellen Burstyn). Soon Lucy is taking a wrecking ball to the supposedly perfect life she has built and she’s keeping her grandmother’s handgun in her glove compartment.
Portman is, as usual, superb as the astronaut whose understanding of the world collapses after seeing beyond our atmosphere’s veil. Always an actor who relishes a thick accent that’s placed under sudden duress—be it Jackie Kennedy or Vox Lux’s Staten Island Faust—Portman leans into building Lucy’s carefully constructed walls before detonating them one by one. With a suburban haircut and utilitarian fashion sense, Lucy is someone who never evaluated her life from a philosophical or grand perspective until she saw a sunrise every 90 minutes from a space shuttle’s window. And her slow descent is punctuated by a number of sharp dialogue exchanges penned in part by Hawley, who revised a screenplay by Elliot DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown.
Unfortunately, the overarching approach to the plot becomes as challenged as the Apollo 13 mission, and it finds little guidance from Hawley’s first attempt at directing a film. This is a shame to report since Hawley is one of the most vivid and original voices on television at the moment. The creator of both FX’s Fargo and Legion, for which he has also directed individual episodes, Hawley has a knack for psychological character studies that rely on mesmeric visuals and performance. Yet he struggles in his first attempt to transfer that to the big screen, leaning heavily on a trick he’s explored with more finesse on Legion. Emphasizing constantly shifting aspect ratios that range from the dimensions of cinemascope to the verticality of a cell phone—often occurring mid-scene as framing disappears during dialogue exchanges—the intended effect is supposed to be as disorienting as Lucy’s state of mind. However, it’s more confusing and distracting than insightful.
The film similarly feels like its characters whenever the black bars pan in: objects floating through negative space, unable to find a clear trajectory. The film clearly wishes to say something about the pressures specifically placed on women, even those as accomplished as Lucy Cola, with sterling scenes between her and Burstyn that ripple with an unspoken understanding that the men in their family lack the grit necessary for perseverance. Lucy tries to pass that on to her niece, as well as the woman she begins watching with a jealous gaze (Zazie Beetz in her second wasted role this October). And yet, it wishes to explore that in a story eager to showcase a woman’s mental state deteriorating in what’s simplified as being a bout of jealousy over a man.
By making Lucy and the third act’s driving impetus her obsession with Mark, as opposed to fully exploring the underlying trip to space’s role in this self-destruction, the mental breakdown has the unfortunate vantage of men trying to rationalize the actions of a woman neither they, nor their film, fully understand. As a consequence, Lucy in the Sky fails to rise above its lofty pretensions, grounding the events of the film’s climax in melodrama no more sophisticated than those “diaper astronaut” punchlines from 12 years ago.