Legion and Fargo TV show creator Noah Hawley has been fairly accused of (at times) prioritizing stylish visuals at the expense of storytelling in his work. It’s a criticism that also applies to his feature directing debut on Lucy in the Sky, a film partly inspired by former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak’s attempted kidnapping, burglary, and assault in 2007. The movie tries to use this incident as the jumping-off point for a story that considers what being in outer space for a long time could do to a person psychologically after they return to earth, but any potential insight is lost in the execution. Lucy in the Sky gets too caught up in technical flourishes and repetitive philosophizing to do anything compelling with its premise or characters.
Natalie Portman stars in Lucy in the Sky as Lucy Cola, an astronaut whose determination to succeed lands her a spot on an extended mission in space. However, after seeing things from the perspective of the cosmos, Lucy finds her old life on earth seems small and trivial by comparison. Eager to get back into space as soon as possible, Lucy commits just about all her energy and attention to landing a spot on the next mission she can qualify for. But when she enters an affair with playboy astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) in an effort to recapture the thrill of being off-planet, Lucy finds herself in danger of going off the deep end.
Lucy in the Sky starts off promising enough with its opening, which finds Lucy at the tail end of her life-changing mission. Whereas a number of recent movies have attempted to portray space in a realistic fashion (see: First Man, Ad Astra), Hawley’s film makes the cold nothingness of the universe seem resplendent and psychedelic in these first few minutes. From there, the movie employs a visual trick in which the scenes of Lucy’s mundane life on earth are presented in the old-fashioned square-like 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to the more customary fullscreen ratio used for the moments where she’s either in space, imagining herself there, or living life on the edge. In theory, it’s a clever way of showing that life on earth feels (literally) smaller for Lucy now. In action, unfortunately, it comes across as a gimmick meant to distract from how much of Lucy in the Sky‘s first two acts amount to the same three events repeated over and over – namely, Lucy obsesses about space, behaves recklessly, and those close to her expres.s their concern.
Hawley also uses many of the same techniques (stylized shots, fragmented editing/montages) as previous Portman-led psychological dramas (Black Swan and Jackie in particular) have to express her characters’ deteriorating mental state. Here, though, the technical aspects overshadow Portman’s performance rather than enhance it, and Lucy’s interactions with the people around her ring all the more hollow for it. It’s a shame, really; Portman commits to making Lucy a subversively engaging and “unlikeable” female protagonist, and the talented supporting cast (including, Dan Stevens as Lucy’s supportive, if somewhat glib husband) do the very best they can, but they’re wasted nonetheless. This goes double for Zazie Beetz, who costars as the young astronaut and Lucy’s “rival”, Erin Eccles. That this is the second recent film, along with Joker, where Beetz has been saddled with playing the glorified plot device for a white protagonist’s downward spiral, well, that’s a discussion in and of itself.
Eventually, during its third act, the Lucy in the Sky script (which Hawley wrote with Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi) transforms into more of a Fargo-esque crime thriller, bringing it closer to Nowak’s real-life story in the process. It’s an awkward tonal shift and even comes with a somewhat bizarre pseudo-empowerment message that only calls more attention to how under-written the movie’s female characters (including, Pearl Amanda Dickson as Lucy’s niece and Ellen Burstyn in an amusing turn as her foul-mouthed grandmother) truly are. This is also where the movie begins to leave a poor taste in one’s mouth. Yes, it cuts out one of the more humiliating details of Nowak’s crime, but Lucy in the Sky is still arguably guilty of exploiting her story in the end and using it as an excuse to wax philosophical, rather than expressing real compassion for her via what happens to Lucy.
To be clear, that surely wasn’t the intention, and Lucy in the Sky is really just trying to be a thoughtful character study (one loosely inspired by terrible real-world events) that uses its trippy imagery and editing to pull audiences into its troubled protagonist’s mindset. But as has happened before on his TV shows, Hawley’s directorial flair gradually becomes the main attraction, resulting in a story that’s altogether muddled and half-baked. Whether that’s because the movie’s premise is fundamentally flawed (as real-life retired astronaut Marsha Ivins argued in a TIME editorial published back in 2017) is up for debate, but Hawley’s ambition is undeniable all the same. Still, like Lucy herself, he would do better to focus a little less on the stars next time and pay more attention to what’s going on around him, instead.