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Lucy in the Sky

Posted October 13, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

In July of 2006, Lisa Nowak flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, responsible for operating the robotic arms of the shuttle and the ISS. But alas, that’s not what she’s best known for. Eight months later, Nowak drove to Orlando, where she assaulted and attempted to kidnap U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman — apparently, the both of them were romantically involved with one astronaut William Oefelein. While Nowak herself was still married to someone else, I might add. Last but not least, it was reported — and later denied — that Nowak had worn diapers at the time of her arrest, the better to make the road trip from Houston to Orlando without stopping.

This was exactly the kind of sordid, bewildering tale that 24-hour news networks live for, to say nothing of comedians and late night talk shows. For so many nights, the airwaves and tabloids were overrun with jokes that write themselves about the crazy lady on a cross-country revenge spree, stewing in her own adulterous madness and her soiled diaper. Ten years later, it might be worth looking back from our more progressive, feminist, all-inclusive viewpoint to see if maybe we were too hard on Lisa Nowak at the time (see also: Monica Lewinsky).

Remember, Nowak was a freaking astronaut. Only the best of the best are even considered for the years of intensive training it takes to board a space shuttle, and she went up there! What does it take for a woman to fall so far, to be driven so crazy, in less than a year?

So here’s Lucy in the Sky, a very loose adaptation of Nowak’s story. Natalie Portman plays the eponymous Lucy Cola, a fictionalized version of Nowak, who returns from a spacefaring mission and proceeds to steadily lose her mind. Jon Hamm plays Mark Goodwin, the handsome womanizing astronaut here serving as our analogue for Oefelein. The Shipman analogue is Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), a friendly rival astronaut competing with Lucy for a seat on the next mission.

Then we have Dan Stevens on hand as Lucy’s hapless husband, and Ellen Burstyn as her admirably stubborn grandmother. We’ve got Tig Notaro for a bit of welcome comic relief, and Nick Offerman making a brief yet noteworthy appearance as Lucy’s therapist. Rounding out the supporting cast is Pearl Amanda Dickson as Blue Iris, Lucy’s niece, another unfortunate victim of our main character’s downward spiral.

Last but not least is Noah Hawley, here making his cinematic debut as director/co-writer/producer. Hawley is primarily known for his TV work, particularly his ongoing work running the acclaimed FX continuation of “Fargo”. Hawley is also responsible for “Legion”, adapting a lesser-known X-Men character by way of innovative visuals and a lauded portrayal of mental illness.

On paper, this movie looks phenomenal. In practice, it’s a monotonous slog.

See, the event that made the news is only the climax, and Lucy’s first spacewalk is in the opening minutes. The hundred minutes in between are all about Lucy losing her mind because she saw the cosmos and went bibbledy over it. She saw just how small humanity is in the grand scheme of things, and now her life on Earth isn’t enough for her. Her husband can’t understand what she’s going through, so she runs into the arms of a fellow astronaut. She pushes herself past the breaking point to earn a spot on the next mission, because all that matters is going back up there.

Let’s review, shall we?

  • Our protagonist is played by Natalie Portman.
  • She’s married to Dan Stevens and banging Jon Hamm on the side.
  • She graduated high school and college at the top of her class, she’s a decorated Navy veteran, and she’s never came in second for anything.
  • She’s smart enough and tough enough to be one of the elite few who have actually been to space.
  • She’s going through the selection process a second time, which means that she’s able to use the training and experience that got her through the first time, an advantage that many of her fellow candidates don’t have.

Given all of this, there’s no way I could possibly sympathize with this character. I’m so sick and tired of movies about successful people who have everything they could ever want, only to deliberately throw it all away for no reason at all. I’ve lost all sympathy for protagonists with first-world problems, and “I have to work real hard to get into space a second time” may well be the most outrageous first-world problem I’ve ever heard. She accomplished something truly great at the outset, she touched the cosmos in the opening minutes, and she spends the rest of the film upset because she can’t go back up there. Fuck that noise.

To be clear, I want to acknowledge the mental health aspect of this. Lucy is going through an existential crisis because she saw firsthand how tiny our pale blue dot is in the grand scheme of things. It blew her mind, it broke her in fundamental ways, and now she’s chasing after that same high because she’s not thinking straight and nothing else feels significant anymore. I get that.

The problem is that Lucy is not the first one to go through this. She’s got a vast array of resources at her disposal, and she uses precisely none of them. NASA sets her up with a perfectly qualified in-house therapist, and doesn’t go to her job-mandated appointments. She’s got a whole community of astronauts who’ve been up there and know what she’s going through, and she doesn’t listen to any of them. Hell, that’s a crucial reason why Lucy begins her extramarital affair with a veteran astronaut, and when he gets to talking about all the stuff that Lucy’s going through and what she needs to do, she pushes it all away. And all things considered, it doesn’t look like Lucy is wanting for money or health coverage.

Lucy knows that she has a problem, she’s got so many friends and family members telling her she has a problem, she’s got every opportunity to address it, and she actively chooses not to. No sympathy.

But then the third act gets started, and a male colleague utters those two magic words: “Too emotional.” Where do I even begin?

First of all, again, Lucy already went up into space! She passed the test! She beat the system! SHE WON!

Secondly, yes, the “too emotional” phrasing is unfortunate. Yes, Hamm’s character is a womanizing dilettante. Even so, it’s been repeatedly and incessantly proven that she really is mentally and emotionally unstable for reasons that have nothing to do with misogyny.

The cosmos drove her insane, and she’s blaming it on the men in her life. Lucy is working herself to the bone, pushing herself twenty times past the breaking point, driving herself into psychosis, and she’s yelling about how she has to because women have to work twice as hard to get half as much. Lucy presents herself as a feminist firebrand while she loses her mind for reasons that have nothing to do with gender equality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of filmmakers and storytellers making a feminist statement about equity and respect for women in the workplace. But here we have a protagonist using feminist arguments to justify all the terrible, awful shit that she does for totally unrelated reasons. It’s counterproductive, tone-deaf, and in fact it is actively harmful. FAIL.

On the flip side, at least the cast is fine. Natalie Portman turns in a remarkable performance, Pearl Amanda Dickson is a lovely new find, and all of the supporting players turn in solid work. But of course the real star is Noah Hawley, who presents us with no shortage of mind-blowing visuals. The changes in aspect ratio, the various cuts and effects, the close-up shots… all of it looks incredible.

When Hawley is using all of this razzle-dazzle to get us into the main character’s head, it works beautifully. When he’s using it to advance the story, we get contrived and ham-fisted visual metaphors like wasps and butterflies. I sincerely hope that somebody gives Hawley a script that makes the best possible use of his strengths, because this ain’t it.

Lucy in the Sky is a highly ambitious failure. There’s so much talent and effort in here, put toward a film that wants to make huge statements about mankind’s place in the cosmos and our psychological inability to comprehend how small we really are in the grand scheme of things. All of it wasted on a writer/director who doesn’t have enough visual tricks to convey those statements for two straight hours, so he has to settle for repeating the premise ad nauseam. And of course it doesn’t help that we’re stuck with a totally unsympathetic protagonist who actively sets feminism back 30 years.

With all of that said, I still can’t rule out the possibility that the awards campaigners might score a few nominations for Portman, Hawley, and maybe a couple of supporting players. If that somehow happens, the awards completionists should check this out on DVD. Otherwise, this is definitely one to avoid.