What would it feel like to go all the way to space, see the Earth from God’s perspective, and then come all the way back down to your mediocre human life? In his directorial film debut, Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) endeavors to find out. But Lucy in the Sky’s attempt to sync cosmological visions with a believable human drama never quite works.
The film is a fictionalization of a real event from the mid-2000s, about astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was arrested at Orlando International Airport in 2007 on charges of attempted kidnapping and battery against U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. Both women were romantically involved with the same male astronaut. Interestingly, the detail that looms largest in the cultural memory of that incident — the reports that Nowak wore a diaper so that she didn’t have to make pit-stops during her 900-mile road trip — is entirely absent from Lucy in the Sky. The film seems much more interested in trying to visualize the kind of cosmic spectacle that might potentially drive someone to such unhinged behavior shortly after going on a NASA mission, an honor reserved for only the most competent Americans.
In any case, the film’s Nowak analogue is astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) who has a mind-blowing experience during her NASA trip to outer space. Once she comes back down to Earth, everyone from her “nice guy” husband Drew (Dan Stevens) to her NASA-assigned therapist (Nick Offerman) tells her she needs to take it easy and soothe herself into the transition. The problem is, Lucy has never taken anything easy in her entire life. We learn that she was valedictorian in high school and college, and she fails to come up with an answer when someone asks her if she’s ever come in second place in anything.
Lucy clearly inherited her workaholic attitude from her take-no-prisoners grandmother Nana (Ellen Burstyn), who raised Lucy with a mind to make up for the faults of their male family members. As an example, Lucy’s brother is so absent-minded he leaves his poetically-named daughter Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) in the care of Lucy and Drew at the beginning of the film, and never comes back for her. It’s left unsaid whether Lucy originally fell in love with Drew because he reminded her of the men she grew up with, or because this woman who’s never come in second refused to be overshadowed by anyone, let alone a husband.
Either way, Lucy no longer finds her marriage satisfying after seeing it from space. She can barely even talk to Drew about her experience, and only finds comfort hanging out with fellow space-bound astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). As Lucy and Mark start spending more and more time together, we start to see the path that will ultimately lead to that epic headline-grabbing road trip.
Unfortunately, Lucy’s journey to that inevitable car ride never really feels believable. In order to convey Lucy’s increasingly fractured mental state, the film relies on the kind of trippy aesthetics that were all over Hawley’s Legion, peaking in Lucy’s kaleidoscopic journey from her home to an important hospital visit set to (what else?) a cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The problem is, such innovative techniques worked much better on Legion, which was a show about an insane telepathic superhero, than a movie about a real person. Hawley’s use of these visuals to get us into Lucy’s head backfire, never getting us deep enough into her psyche to understand her very real behavior — the closest we get to that is a character reading a poem aloud toward the end.
Lucy in the Sky has plenty of arresting cosmic visuals, and on the other hand tries to portray a human drama about an overachiever pushed to her breaking point. But those two halves never cohere into a whole. C+