Film Review: Natalie Portman in ‘Lucy in the Sky’ (2024)

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.

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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.)

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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’ (2024)

FAQs

What is the point of Lucy in the Sky movie? ›

Natalie Portman stars in a drama that is loosely based on the case of Lisa Nowak, the Nasa astronaut who was disgraced after attacking the girlfriend of her ex-lover. The feature debut from Noah Hawley pushes the idea that, once someone has ventured into space, readjusting to life back on Earth can be a struggle.

Is Lucy in the Sky based on a true story? ›

Like First Man, Lucy in the Sky is based on a true story. In real life, astronaut Lisa Nowak went to space, returned, began an affair with fellow astronaut William Oefelein, and unraveled when she found out Oefelein was seeing Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman.

What is the plot of the movie "Lucy in the Sky"? ›

Why is Lucy in the Sky Rated R? ›

Rated R for language and some sexual content.

What is the hidden message in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? ›

So here we have four explanations for the origin and meaning of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: (1) It is about the drug LSD; (2) it is a lyrical response to Julian's drawing, colored by the writings of Lewis Carroll; (3) it is about a female savior who turned out to be Yoko Ono; and (4) it is about Lennon's mother, ...

What is the moral of the movie Lucy? ›

One of the central themes is the nature of reality and the limitations of human perception. As Lucy's brain capacity expands, she gains access to a heightened sense of awareness, allowing her to perceive the world in ways that transcend the ordinary human experience.

What is the controversy with Lucy in the Sky? ›

LSD rumours. Rumours of the connection between the title of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and the initialism "LSD" began circulating shortly after the release of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP in June 1967. McCartney gave two interviews in June admitting to having taken the drug.

What is the ending of Lucy in the Sky? ›

Lucy completely breaks down and is apprehended by the police while attempting to flee. An assortment of weapons and tools are discovered in her car. Three years later, Lucy's niece is giving a presentation in class, with Lucy's husband in attendance.

What was Lucy in the Sky written about? ›

According to Lennon, the song's origins lie in a drawing his 3-year old son Julian had created and brought home from school. The drawing was of his friend Lucy O'Donnell who was floating in the sky surrounded by sparkling jewels and diamonds.

What did Lucy see at the end of the movie? ›

The scene has a voiceover from Scarlett Johansson's Lucy saying "life was given to us a billion years ago, what have we done with it?" During the ending of Lucy, as she prepares to reach 100 percent and begins to transcend time and space, she goes to see the prehistoric Lucy and reaches out to touch her hand, launching ...

Does Lucy in the Sky actually ship? ›

Regular Shipping cost is $19.90 (10-12 business days) and Expedited Shipping at $39.90 (3-6) Business Days.

Why did Lucy disappear at the end? ›

Meanwhile, Jang enters the lab and points a gun at Lucy's head. He shoots, but by that point Lucy has reached 100% of her brain capacity and promptly disappears, moving into the spacetime continuum. Only her clothes and the black supercomputer are left behind.

What is the point of Lucy in the sky? ›

While Lucy in the Sky does reflect some major events in Nowak's life, the film uses her strange real-life downfall more as a backdrop to a larger story about the psychological effects of space travel on astronauts—similar to what Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has described experiencing upon his return to Earth ...

Is Lucy in the Sky a good movie? ›

It's proper acting, from one of the modern greats. Content collapsed. Natalie Portman puts in a strong, committed performance and offers an interesting perspective of a smart, competent woman who suffers from a mental breakdown. However, it's not enough to elevate a weak script and tonally uneven direction.

Are there any inappropriate scenes in Lucy? ›

Sex, Romance & Nudity

The main character is sometimes sexualized through her outfits. In two instances, male characters place their hands down the front of her top. In one scene, Lucy, while fully clothed, spreads her legs apart to seduce a guard, though she quickly defeats him. Lucy kisses a helpful cop.

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