It’s always a downer when talented artists pour everything they’ve got into a film that stubbornly refuses to come to life. That’s the case with Lucy in the Sky, an astronaut drama from a female perspective that argues space travel can seriously screw with your perceptions of life on earth. Take Lucy Cola, for example: She’s an astronaut with a Texas drawl and a can-do attitude that makes her a formidable competitor for the alpha males at NASA. As played by an ardent, adventurous Natalie Portman, Lucy is fundamentally changed by seeing the planet from her spot on a shuttle hurtling through space.
Kudos to British cinematographer Polly Morgan for helping us share in the character’s cosmic exhilaration through images as disturbing as they are dazzling. Trouble comes when this girl with kaleidoscope eyes returns to her suburban life as wife to goody-goody NASA public-relations man Drew (Dan Stevens), mother to Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) and granddaughter to sass-queen Nana (Ellen Burstyn). Suddenly, Lucy’s life seems terribly small. She indulges in sweaty sex with Mark Goodwin, not just because he’s played by Jon Hamm but because he’s a fellow astronaut. The cad may view his smitten coowrker as a momentary distraction, but she hits on him like space crack. In Nana’s words, Lucy has a yen for “astronaut dick,” and she’s not letting go. And in its initial scenes, Lucy in the Sky seems to be on to something special. Sadly, not for long.
In his feature debut, director Noah Hawley — whose work on TV’s Fargo and Legion is exemplary — tries every trick in the first-timer’s handbook, from shifting aspect ratios to skewed points of view, to give the illusion of action with a subversive agenda. In truth, there’s nothing underneath but a soap opera plot borrowed from real life. Hawley and fellow screenwriters Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi dip liberally into the headline-making story of Lisa Nowak, a NASA mission specialist who in 2007 drove from Houston to Orlando with the intent to kidnap a female Air Force Captain she believed was having an affair with the astronaut who’d rejected her. Though Lucy in the Sky differs in more than names from that space-age Fatal Attraction, it infuses Hawley’s film with a tabloid vibe that tends to reduce his anti-heroine to a hysterical woman, a cliché that’s unlikely to play for today’s audiences.
Portman, of course, is too intelligent an actress to let her character slide into yesterday’s banalities. She makes us understand the sacrifices Lucy had to make to hold her own and then some in male-dominated NASA. The movie goes further by showing how the impact of the cosmos may have altered this woman’s ability to readjust, a situation worsened by her failure to be accepted in the next mission headed by her lover. Still, even the star’s deeply felt performance can’t salvage a tale that ends in the jumble of Lucy’s cross-country rampage against the man who done her wrong. It’s unsettling indeed to watch a film aspire to existential exploration and then crash to earth, reduced to nothing but the saga of a stereotypical space case.