Film Review: Natalie Portman in ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Natalie Portman and director Noah Hawley try to humanize the high-profile case of disgraced astronaut Lisa Nowak, revealing the enormous pressures on women in a male-dominated field.

Lucy in the Sky
Fox Searchlight

The term “space case” may as well have been invented for Lucy Cola, a fictional astronaut loosely inspired by Lisa Nowak, who famously (if not entirely factually) donned adult diapers and powered her way cross-country to confront a romantic rival at the Orlando airport, where she was arrested for what amounted to attempted kidnapping and battery. When the story broke — this was a dozen years back, in 2007 — news outlets and tabloids alike treated it as a kind of pathetic “Fatal Attraction” scenario, in which a jealous NASA engineer couldn’t handle being dumped by one of her colleagues and went berserk.

Now, Natalie Portman offers an alternate interpretation. In its oddly understanding and stylistically ambitious way, “Lucy in the Sky” suggests that maybe outer space was to blame for Nowak’s actions. You see, as an astronaut, Nowak belonged to a very small club of super-achievers who have actually touched the heavens, looking down on our tiny blue planet. As a woman, she had to work harder than her male colleagues to earn a spot on the Discovery shuttle.

No doubt an experience like that changes someone, which is the liftoff point for this distractingly over-directed big-screen debut from TV helmer Noah Hawley (“Legion,” “Fargo”) — a gifted visual storyteller who triple-knots his own shoelaces here, stumbling over cumbersome metaphors (butterflies, floating) and high-concept solutions to straightforward dramatic problems when he should have just entrusted his leading lady to carry the narrative. For example, in the opening scene, Hawley contrasts the glorious full-screen splendor of Earth seen from above with a narrower, pillarboxed view of things back on terra firma. Playing with the matting thus is a nifty idea, but one that imposes a kind of formal subjectivity upon the movie, inadvertently competing with Portman’s performance. (Later, Hawley and DP Polly Morgan alternate between aspect ratios so often that it starts to feel like someone has grabbed both of your ears and is playing your head like a giant accordion.)

In any case, the script (which Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi wrote, and Hawley retooled) floats its armchair analysis of the character early, when a post-touchdown therapist played by Nick Offerman (bearded and wheelchair-bound, like some kind of eccentric comic book character) quotes Michael Collins, who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission. Stuck orbiting the moon while those two made their famous walk, Collins reportedly wrote, “I am now truly alone and absolutely alone from any known life. I am it.”

Surely space must have had a profound impact on Nowak — whom we’ll refer to as Lucy going forward, since the film strays pretty far from the truth in its exploration of her psychology. Why Lucy? As far-out pop songs go, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” are both about spacemen, and the filmmakers clearly wanted something equivalently ladylike to play over the movie’s trippiest sequence — not counting the vaguely “Gravity”-like opening, when Portman’s kaleidoscope-eyed Lucy sees her life from above and suffers a kind of existential crisis.

From space, Lucy watches everything that once felt so important — her husband, Drew (Dan Stevens), daughter Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) and supportive, chain-smoking granny (Ellen Burstyn) — flash by like a montage (actually, it is a montage). Later, confiding in flirtatious fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), Lucy explains in her thick Texas drawl, “You go up there, you see the whole universe, and everything down here seems so small.”

It’s the kind of observation the film treats as if you had to be there — like blasting past the atmosphere is the only way to lose perspective on one’s terrestrial concerns. Except that there are a thousand ways that happens to people every day: a near-death experience, falling in love, being treated as a celebrity. When it’s used to justify an extramarital affair, it’s called rationalization, and while I’m not here to judge Lucy for it, the movie seems to go to extraordinary lengths to suggest that her garden-variety enviousness was somehow special when in fact, it was her reaction that made her case exceptional.

“Lucy in the Sky” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equivalent of Amazon Studios’ “Lorena,” which takes the feminist (although “humanist” would be equally apt) approach to a notorious tabloid case by approaching Lorena Bobbitt as a victim, and investigating what led her to lop off husband John Wayne’s offending organ. Hawley’s film wants to have it both ways, playing it sensitive one moment and sensationalist the next. But it does take the step of confronting the systemic flaw — workplace sexism — that played into Lucy’s actions. She may have been having an off-limits (indeed illegal, according to military rules, since she was married) affair with a colleague, but she wasn’t doing it alone. Portman radiates confidence in the role, ably masking the character’s well-hidden vulnerability. And while Hamm may be handsome, he’s playing a superior officer who further abuses his power after jettisoning Lucy for another colleague (Zazie Beetz).

Without giving too much away, Lucy discovers evidence that Mark sought to ground her after they broke up. That detail suggests her nearly 1,000-mile drive — with no diaper, instead dragging her grown daughter along for the ride — wasn’t about terrorizing her competition, or confronting her ex, but trying to talk her way back onto the upcoming Orion mission. For Lucy, “the sky” had become a kind of drug. Once she’d gone up, she was desperate to achieve that high again, which is something so few women are permitted to experience. In that respect, the movie feels timely, illustrating the incredible obstacles women face to be taken seriously in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Nearly half a century after the events of “Hidden Figures,” the opportunities for women at NASA have evolved from functioning as thankless human calculators to being astronauts themselves — a struggle more directly dramatized in a French film, Alice Winocur’s “Proxima,” that also premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Unfortunately, every hard-won step of progress can be instantly reversed by a hoary sexist stereotype, as when Lucy’s boss tells her, “You just let yourself get too emotional.”

Until now, Hawley has managed to keep this showy melodrama relatively relatable. Once accused of being hysterical, however, Lucy proceeds to unravel, and suddenly the movie spirals into Brian De Palma territory: Lucy goes to the grocery store and buys a wig, a mallet, a knife and everything else in the Piggly Wiggly “kidnapping supplies” aisle. The film’s outrageous last act seems to have been beamed in from another dimension, which is strange, since it’s the segment that most directly hails from real life. At this point, “Lucy in the Sky” will either lose audiences or win them over, suggesting that she somehow lost her mind (or a part of it) in space. For some reason, Hawley goes big and campy when the movie’s original goal had been to block out all that cosmic noise and focus on what was happening inside the character’s head.

Film Review: Natalie Portman in ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 124.

  • Production: A Fox Searchlight Pictures release and presentation, in association with TSG Entertainment, of a Pacific Standard, 26 Keys production. Producers: Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papndrea, Noah Hawley, John Cameron. Executive producers: Molly Allen, Leigh Kittay, Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi.
  • Crew: Director: Noah Hawley. Screenplay: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley; story: Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi. Camera (color): Polly Morgan. Editor: Regis Kimble. Music: Jeff Russo.
  • With: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo, Ellen Burtsyn.