When we first meet Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), she is indeed hundreds of miles up in the sky, hovering alongside a NASA spacecraft as it orbits Earth. Lucy is in awe, gazing upon the full wonder of the planet, for her space is more than mind-blowing; it’s so transcendent that nothing about life back on dry land can compete. She’s nearing the end of her mission but doesn’t want to leave, and you can hardly blame her. Basking in the otherworldly silence as her home planet is spread out beneath her, she’s overwhelmed by wonderment and heartache and also by a piercing realization: Life will never be the same, or as beautiful as this. It’s a despairing conclusion that she will spend the rest of this mixed bag of a psychological drama trying to outrun.
Vigorously directed (some might say overdirected) by Noah Hawley, a television veteran making his feature debut, Lucy in the Sky tells the fact-based but heavily fictionalized story of an astronaut experiencing an unusually difficult reentry. Lucy seems outwardly fine after returning to her Texas home: She’s in excellent physical condition, with none of the exhaustion or muscular decay that astronauts often experience after doing time in zero gravity. Her mind, however, has never come back to Earth; it remains stuck in the cosmos, and she longs to return there as quickly as possible. Hawley works hard to capture Lucy’s dislocation into cinematic terms, sometimes splicing a sequence into flashbacks and flash-forwards, and sometimes by having the aspect ratio shift almost compulsively throughout. When Lucy returns from her first mission, the frame shrinks to the nearly square Academy aspect ratio, as if to match her emotional constriction; it widens again when other possibilities rear their head (at one point the borders of the image even quiver). Hawley is hardly the only director of late to tinker with the shape of the image but I can’t recall the last movie in which the screen is twitched so relentlessly, to the point where you’re not sure if you’re seeing an experimental technique or a projection malfunction.
The point of all the visual fluctuation is clear, however: Outer space has ruined ordinary life for Lucy, who begins to register her indifference through small, secretive acts of protest. No longer satisfied with the happy but mundane home she once enjoyed with her strait-arrow husband, Drew (Dan Stevens), she begins a affair with a fellow astronaut, Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). She applies herself with even more effort than usual to the various tests and training sessions that will determine the next NASA space crew, and exchanges the occasional barb with younger candidate, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), who just might push her aside.
You may know where this is all headed, especially if you followed the story of Capt. Lisa Nowak, Lucy’s real-life inspiration. Who’s story fascinated the public back in 2007, as it involved a love-triangle of NASA elite, a planned kidnapping, and adult diapers to avoid stopping during a nine-hundred drive. Except in Lucy in the Sky diapers are neither seen nor worn. Hawley, who cowrote the script with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, has said the he avoided the diaper element because he wanted to “rehumanize” his off-screen subject. Which is a debatable notion, but interesting idea to tackle. And you can also appreciate the sensitivity of his approach to Lucy, whom he treats less as a stand-in for Nowak than as a woman whose dreams, desires, frustrations and impulses defy conventional dramatization or diagnosis. Her family life has been completely reinvented. Lucy has a sharp-tongued grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), who keeps a foreshadowing loaded gun in her purse, and a moody niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) whose narrative function is harder to divine. All together, they form a collective portrait of female solidarity in a movie that’s about, among other things, the insulting assumptions and diminished expectations that women face in matters of work and love.
One good way to approach Lucy in the Sky is to see it as a companion chapter to the season’s other stargazing character study, Ad Astra, answering that film’s masculine remoteness with a portrait of a female astronaut in emotional flux. The feminist thrust may explain the way Hawley and his cowriters have selectively reshaped Nowak’s story, especially what awaits her at the end of her road trip. Unfortunately, that conclusion is anticlimactic at best, full of tacked-on thriller shenanigans that, once they’ve ran out, make you wonder exactly why this story drew the filmmakers’ attention to begin with. The answer to it all, happily, can be found in Portman’s every glimmer of nuance. She’s been fond of big accents and big histrionics of late, and here she’s rocking an accent as thick as Texas toast. But her Texas drawl here also complements a performance that always feels focused and measured in its volatility, being both persuasive and convicting. You don’t need a bunch of lyrical butterfly shots when you have an actress who can show you, in a simple glance or gesture, a woman who’s more than outlived her cocoon. Noah Hawley is a clearly gifted visual storyteller and in Lucy in the Sky sometimes that shines, but in the end he ultimately stumbles over himself losing control of his narrative. Delivering one of, if not the, most mixed bag movie experience of the year.