TIFF Review: ‘Lucy in the Sky’ is a total failure

Lucy in the Sky

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festivalclick here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our full TIFF archives of past coverage.

Longtime readers of my work here at Vanyaland might remember that I have a love-hate relationship with director, writer, and showrunner Noah Hawley, whose X-Universe TV show Legion I used to review every week before I realized that TV recapping really wasn’t my bag as a writer (an apology to all of those who suffered through those days). The guy has a knack for creating interesting scenes, that’s for sure, and sprinkled within every season of his shows are undeniably fantastic moments that make all the pretentious grasping-for-meaning and tedium worth it. When it was announced he’d be directing a movie, entitled Lucy in the Sky, based on the true-and-tragic tale of Lisa Nowak — known to many a Common listener as “the astronaut lady,” who embarked on a cross-country trek in order to confront her lover, a fellow space traveller, and attempt to kidnap him — there was some reasonable cause for hope. If Hawley could condense all of the energy and pathos he’d found in the best scenes of his career in television into 120 minutes, he might very well have something special on his hands. But, alas, Lucy in the Sky is not that movie, and, in fact, it emphasizes the worst aspects of Hawley’s approach to filmmaking at every given turn. 

Look, I’ll just give you the basics, given that we already know what the ending is going to be, and the film’s insistence at the beginning that it’s “inspired by actual events” makes you understand quickly that they’re not going to do anything too far outside the Wikipedia purview of the story. Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is an astronaut who has just returned from her first mission aboard the ISS, where she was so taken with the beauty of the Great Beyond that she begins to lose sight of everything around her. Her relationship with her loving husband (Dan Stevens) starts to bore her, she’s finally hit all of the peaks that her brusque grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) demanded of her over the course of her life, and all she wants to do is just go back to space and see it all again. She’s facing stiff competition for the next trip from Erin (Zazie Beetz), a younger astronaut gunning for her seat, and her superiors (Nick Offerman and Coleman Domingo) begin to suspect that she might not be doing too well. So, when an attractive co-worker invites her out to go bowling, or, well, drinking more so than bowling, she heads out with him. His name is Mark Goodman (Jon Hamm), a Space Shuttle captain, and the two begin a relationship that will ultimately be the end of Cola’s career, as a mental breakdown causes her to do the unthinkable. 

It’s incredible to me that nobody decided to adapt Nowak’s story into a film or a documentary or something over the last decade until right now; it’s up there with the “balloon boy” story as one of the wildest now-forgotten true crime tales of the 21st Century, as there’s layers upon layers of fascinating detail baked into the particulars of the case. Reading into the contemporaneous reaction to the case by various NASA personnel — her alcohol abuse, lax mental health guidelines on an industry-wide basis, even the potential (and necessary) stressors placed upon astronauts by their superiors — there are a number of posited explanations for Nowak’s behavior that one could use as a basis for a fictionalized telling, a root cause to be explored, or teased out. Hawley and his co-screenwriters, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Brian C. Brown, go the Ren & Stimpy route instead, blaming the fictional Lucy Cola’s downfall on “space madness,” implying that this is something that each and every astronaut who heads into the vastness of the void will go through. Understandably, this is something that real-life figures in the space industry have pushed back against, and while there is a fascinating phenomenon known as “space euphoria” amongst astronauts, there’s very little to suggest that Nowak’s experiences off-world inspired her crimes.

This might have been an interesting approach to this story had Hawley and company decided to do anything with it beyond characters uttering generic Neil Degrasse Tyson-level banalities about our insignificance in the grand scheme of things or had Hawley chosen to be more thematically bold or interesting in his visuals. As you’ve probably guessed from the trailer, there are more aspect-ratio changes here than there are FunkoPOP! figurines lying in garbage dumps around the country. Space sequences (or scenes in which Lucy feels big) are filmed in wide-screen, while scenes in which Lucy feels trapped in her marriage or work or whatever are filmed in Academy ratio; obviously manipulated from the original wide-screen negative in order to fit. There are at least four or five other screen-sizes baked into the framework of this movie, and each of them is as pointless and dumb as the last. There’s a root of a good, albeit incredibly facile, idea in there, but it feels half-baked, especially when finally projected on to the screen (you can tell a man has been in TV for too long when he forgets about how necessary masking is to theatrical presentation). His other surrealist touches — such as a lengthy platform tracking shot as Lucy floats through a hospital — look ugly as hell, especially when contrasted with the care given to the space sequences earlier in the film.

Hawley’s so convinced of his structural stability that he feels alright with letting his actors flounder about in search of their characters for most of the runtime, leaving it essentially up to them what their characters do on a scene-to-scene basis. Portman, already going 90 while searching desperately for some sort of grounding for her character, resorts to shallow histrionics by the middle of the film by pushing the pedal to the metal, hoping her own wildness might provide the film with a heartbeat. It’s a bold move, and it’s one that doesn’t pay off in the slightest, as it drifts directly into unintentional camp territory; an inversion of her work in films like Black Swan, where she had a steady hand and a great script guiding her to greatness. Hamm is reliable as always, but he’s not given the chance to develop his scumbag character much, though he’s often rewarded by the material (in fact, he gets the film’s single best moment: Him, the week before a mission, drunk as a skunk, watching the Challenger explosion over and over again on the TV in his empty apartment). Burstyn is a treasure, and it’s a pleasure to watch her sling sarcastic barbs with Portman, and even Stevens makes the most of his scenes, attempting to rise above the script’s pigeonholing his character as a “cuck,” but there’s not much there for anybody to work with.

God, this movie is just such a tremendous, relentless bummer, in practice and in retrospect at the squandered opportunity. Lucy in the Sky is essentially the Johnny Manziel of feature filmmaking debuts: A highly-touted prospect, thanks to its experience on another level of a similar venture, gifted an opportunity to turn things around on a larger level. But it just can’t seem to get out of its own way, and all you’re left with is a massive disappointment that just gets more and more depressing as time goes on. Even a trip to Canada wouldn’t save this one. And, a final pro-tip: Don’t jokingly introduce your movie by telling us a quirky anecdote about how Jon Hamm told you backstage that this is the last movie you’ll ever make. It might come true.