Special Effects: B+
Indicating a movie was “inspired by true events” is always a tricky proposition. How can I not wonder how much of the story is based on truth, and how much is embellished? Especially when it culminates in a “what the fuck, you’ve got to be kidding” ending? You can bet I made a beeline for the nearest Internet browser as soon as the movie was over. Turns out, the events immediately leading up to the arrest of astronaut Lida Nowak, on whom “Lucy Cola” is based, were indeed quite similar to those depicted in Lucy in the Sky, albeit with fewer of the principal players present. I guess in the movies, if you have Jon Hamm on hand, you want to keep him onscreen as much as you can.
An attempted kidnapping isn’t even the first Wait—what? moment in the movie. The most egregious is when Lucy is stocking up for the trip, and she pops into a store where she picks up supplies like a knife, duct tape, rope, and a wig in what is apparently the “Psycho Kidnapper’s Supplies” aisle.
It’s too bad there are moments like this at all in this movie, as they are few at least until the very end. Before that, director Noah Hawley, whose previous work mostly consists of writing for television shows like Bones, Legion and Fargo (his previous directing experience limited to five episodes among those shows), is on to something. He has ideas worth exploring in Lucy in the Sky, with an astronaut emotionally unraveling as she can’t cope with returning to Earth after time in space blew her mind. He just doesn’t explore them with any clarity.
His peculiar visual choices don’t help. Never before have I seen a movie that is so fast and loose with aspect ratios, which change with such frequency it’s to the point of distraction. Until the kind of bonkers climax, I was fairly on board with the narrative flow, yet prevented from full immersion by the constantly changing height and width of the picture. And I do mean constant: black boxes would close in on both sides, or from the top and bottom, and then zoom right back out again in a single scene. In some instances, the image is roughly square. In a few cases, the picture narrows vertically to such an extent that it looks like someone got slaphappy with the “panorama” feature on their smartphone. It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, presumably intended to evoke Lucy’s emotional state. I could only find myself wondering about its necessity.
Often, though, what’s actually composed within these constantly changing frames is quite visually compelling, a kaleidoscope of visions and memories and waking dream sequences, in one case an apparent hallucination, and several lovely shots taken from so far over neighborhoods and streets they evoke the passing of satellites overhead.
Lucy in the Sky would be much worse if not for Natalie Portman as the title character. People love to drag her for her accent work, first in Jackie and now as a Texan here. Admittedly I do not have a nuanced ear for southern accents, but she sounded great to me. In fact, Portman is easily the best thing about this movie. Most of the others, including Jon Hamm, are merely serviceable. The only other possible exceptions are Dan Stevens as Lucy’s increasingly worried and exasperated husband (a kind of nice reversal of the usual gender roles in stories of this sort), and Pearl Amanda Dickson as Lucy’s visiting teenage niece, Blue Ivy.
These actors, and even the script, are engaging enough for the first three quarters of the run time to make all the moving picture shapes almost forgivable. But then Lucy in the Sky approaches its climax, and it goes off the rails in spectacular fashion. True, the life of the real astronaut by whom this was “inspired” did the same. But the movie would have been crazy enough had it stuck to what actually happened, rather than piling on extra fictional details—like the presence of a gun—that serve no real purpose other than eye-rolling melodrama.
And by the sound of things, Lisa Nowak was maybe just kind of nuts. Real-life astronauts have weighed on on the implausibility of this film’s very premise that several days in space might cause them to lose their grip on reality. In other words, Lucy in the Sky is a pure fantasy, and a potentially problematic one at that. At least it’s also an intermittently pretty one, I guess.