NME at TIFF – ‘Lucy in the Sky’ review: a deranged sci-fi drama with its head in the clouds

Natalie Portman's talents are put to waste in this hapless story of an astronaut losing herself as she returns back to earth.

The phrase ‘so bad it might be good‘ can, sometimes, be a movie’s greatest weapon. Then there’s Natalie Portman’s latest project, Lucy in the Sky. It tells the story of an astronaut who returns from space and then embarks on a deranged, existential quest to find new meaning in her life – a heavy-handed space drama with its head firmly in the clouds. It’s just really, really bad.

Portman’s character Lucy Cola has been to space. We know this because she nonchalantly mentions it, several times, in the way most of us describe doing a weekly Aldi shop. To her, the ceaseless unknown is her home and a place where her life found purpose. But back on the ground, as she comes to terms with the comparative mundanity of everyday life, she continues to “wear the trousers” in her household. We know this because she opens sticky jars for her husband Drew, a PR for NASA who roots for her, who also never thoroughly questions her whereabouts like a controlling other half might do. But it backfires for him: Lucy, behind his back, is engaging in a love affair with the impossibly handsome and cocksure Mark, another astronaut (yep, there’s a few) played by Jon Hamm. The traditional gender dynamics have, admirably, been turned on their head, but it’s executed with such a clunky, diet feminist approach that it comes off comical rather than groundbreaking. 

Director and screenwriter Noah Hawley (creator of FX’s Fargo series), seems to have misread the perspective of his woman protagonist entirely. Lucy in the Sky is supposed to tell the story of how leaving Planet Earth alters your mental state to the point of delusion, but if they were opting for a woman lead character over a male one, there should’ve probably been a woman screenwriter involved to iron out the one-dimensional ‘crazy lady’ character we’re left with.

Their justification might be that this is based on true events – that this story happened to astronaut Lisa Nowak (her fate spoils the film, so research at your own peril) – but other women astronauts have come forward to point out the discrepancies in Hawley’s script. Marsha Ivins, who’s been to space five times and seems to be quite alright, has already called BS on the plot.

Which makes sense because Hawley’s script and directorial decisions are both so scrambled that they fail to make sense of any of its characters or their psychological nuances. Portman’s giving it her all here – adopting a thick southern accent – but it’s not enough to erase the tropes of her character. Zazie Beetz is sorely underused and underwritten; a side note in a story that could use a stronger and more believable woman’s presence. And Jon Hamm is, well, Jon Hamm.

This film features 86-year-old Ellen Burstyn saying the line ‘Astronaut dick has made you soft’. It features Portman brandishing a tin of bug spray like its a deadly weapon. It features Hamm lying scantily clad and drinking whisky in front of his television, watching the Challenger spacecraft explode on television three times in a row. It’s some of the most improbable stuff that an American studio has ever put money behind and its highly likely they’ll make very little of it back.

From a stylistic standpoint, the film endlessly switches aspect ratio for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Perhaps it’s to reflect the changing perspectives of its protagonist, but unfortunately we’re not on that journey with her, because Lucy is sort of profoundly unlikeable. 

Which is perhaps why Lucy in the Sky burns up as it enters the atmosphere, crumbling to pieces, deranged and hapless. Everyone here is either bitter, an arsehole or more often than not, a little bit of both. In the end, we’re left with nobody to root for.

Lucy in the Sky had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on the 6th December.

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