“Houston, we have a problem!”
Lucy in the Sky follows Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), an overperforming astronaut who experiences a celestial and life-changing phenomenon during a space mission. Not long after returning to Earth, Lucy starts feeling a frustrating void in her life, and takes up an extramarital affair with a fellow astronaut (Jon Hamm). Though she assures her family (Dan Stevens) and peers that she is adjusting back to life fine, she gradually starts to spiral out of control mentally, and when her lover takes up another affair with another astronaut (Zazie Beetz), she walks down the road of no return.
The film is loosely based on the true story (very awkwardly stated in the opening title cards) of infamous former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. It is also the directorial debut of writer Noah Hawley, the creator of TV shows such as Fargo and Legion. It is easy to see why he would want to tell this story, as there is plenty of intrigue in the mentally-trying life of an astronaut. In this case, however, it is probably wise not to give a story like this to a first-time director, because the final product is an amateurish mess.
It is disheartening to call this film amateurish, because there are plenty of interesting ideas on display, but they are all fighting for attention, resulting in an uneven experience. One fatal mistake that Hawley makes is not setting up a proper introduction to our main character. Almost immediately, the audience is thrown into the sequence where Lucy has her galactic experience. It would have been more interesting to see a bit of Lucy’s life on earth before the space sequence, so that the audience can connect with her better. The sequences on Earth that do follow are so differing in tone, that it is hard to figure out what kind of film this is trying to be. One can make the argument that the shifting tone helps put the audience in Lucy’s shoes as she spirals downward, but from an outsider’s perspective, it feels too jarring. Since it does not have proper focus, this film has virtually nothing to say.
The film has this unusual trait where it is frustrating to comprehend, yet still feels hypnotizing. Perhaps it comes with trying to understand the creative choices that Hawley makes. For example, the film contains a big amount of eagle-eye shots. This could be referencing Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” which was the original working title for this film, in that what happens on earth is so minuscule compared to the size of the universe, that it doesn’t even matter. The downside is that this happens at inopportune moments, so it feels less like an artistic choice and more like a gimmick, and renders the message bland.
These choices are not limited strictly to the camerawork either, as they are found in the editing, too. The beginning sequence where Lucy is in space contains an awkwardly fast-paced montage of her memories from Earth. In addition, Hawley fiddles with the film’s aspect ratio, in that it goes from widescreen to full frame out of nowhere, and at one point, even narrows the frame down to a small bar at the middle. Even the music choices are awkward, in that scenes that are supposed to be sensual are scored to ethereal classical music, and scenes that are meant to be suspenseful are scored to rock n’ roll. And yes, the Beatles song does make it into the film, rather comically, in a hospital scene that looks like the result of a bad drug trip. Tonally, it is as if the film can’t decide whether it wants to be Interstellar or Hot Fuzz.
Natalie Portman is, without a doubt, and exceptionally talented actress, and has proved it from time to time. In this film, she adopts an awkward Southern accent that is so so thick, it is hard to understand what she is saying. With a plot this muddled and confused, that doesn’t help her performance at all, and she deserves better. To be fair, most of the actors do not fare much better, and seem as confused with the tone as the audience is. Zazie Beetz is the only actress who manages to give a genuine performance, and is of the few bright spots of this rather bewildering film.
As much as Lucy in the Sky tries to soar, it doesn’t go anywhere. Noah Hawley is not an experienced enough director to handle a story like this, and any sense of intrigue and insight are mishandled to the point of being unintentionally humorous. If you want to see a space film that handles its main character properly, go out and see Ad Astra, as you will also be in the mysterious beauty of space for much more time. Give Hawley this credit, most of this film is so dreadful, that, like Lucy, you would rather be in the sky. With diamonds, if you’re lucky!