Natalie Portman is the titular “Lucy in the Sky” and her Lucy does have at least the kind of diamond that comes with an engagement and wedding ring, but Lucy’s marital status proves to be of little matter. Her perspective isn’t psychedelic nor does she profess a special love for the Beatles, but her changed perspective comes from her time in the sky as an astronaut in this sometimes bewildering tale of infidelity between a bitter triangle amongst those who train to reach for the stars.
You might remember this news item about a female astronaut who drove from Texas to Florida, reportedly wearing maximum absorbency garments (diapers) to save time, in a murder attempt on a woman she saw as her rival. The woman, Lisa Marie Nowak, had been a naval flight officer and a NASA astronaut who was a mission specialist in robotics on the Space Shuttle Discovery during a July 2006 mission. She was arrested in Orlando on Feb. 5 for the attempted kidnapping of US Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. The object of their affections was William Oefelein. Oefelein would later admit to a two-year affair with Nowak, but Oefelein would marry Shipman in 2010. At the time of the attack, Nowak was married with three children. The Nowaks separated in January 2007 and divorced.
The movie begins with Portman’s character swallowed up by her NASA spacewalk suit on her spacewalk, floating while tethered to the shuttle. Portman’s slim figure is engulfed by the bulky white and you might pause to recall that aborted first all-female spacewalk (March 2019) due to a horrid oversight–lack of two spacesuits the right size.
Portman’s Lucy seems spaced out when she re-boards the shuttle while the rest of the crew are engaged in essential activities. On earth, Lucy is more determined to ace all her post-journey tests and get back into space in three years.
In the film, the husband Drew Cola (Dan Stevens) is a NASA PR person. He smiles too much and too brightly and is dismissed by the director and the script written by the three-some of Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi and Noah Hawley. That’s a mistake particularly when you have the actor who sent hearts throbbing in the first three seasons of “Downton Abbey” and was the live-action prince in Disney’s 2017 “Beauty and the Beast.”
One easily sees why she falls in with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) who is the naughty astronaut. If you haven’t caught on from the specials on Apollo 11, there are astronaut groupies. For Apollo 11 there were “Cape (Canaveral) Cookies” and astronaut and cosmonauts were alike in their inability to resist temptation. What, of course, made the original scandal alarmingly different was that all three were astronauts. The other woman is Erin Eccles (Zazi Beetz) who is unencumbered with a spouse.
Portman’s Lucy is not particularly musical and her closest encounter with the psychedelic is her changing perspective which under cinematographer Polly Morgan and director Hawley is represented by changing screen ratio. Someday, if I have the chance to view the movie continuously for a day, it might make more sense. The use of the Beatles’ song seems little more than a marketing ploy.
Hawley is the showrunner, writer and sometime director for the Marvel-verse television series, “Legion,” which stars Stevens and deals with an unreliable narrator and a reality distorted by both being inspired by a comic book (where people die but after convoluted explanation reappear) and its association with mental illness. In “Lucy in the Sky,” Lucy does have some issues. She’s a driven A-type personality. She has a brother who is not and dumps his child, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson), on the couple. She has a tough-talking, chain-smoking mother, Nana Holbrook (Ellen Burstyn).
None of this really works and people in the know about NASA will wonder about why San Diego, California was substituted for Orlando, Florida. That will be the most minor quibble considering that while this movie was under development as “Pale Blue Dot,” an astronaut who flew five space shuttle missions, Marsha Ivins, wrote an article that was published in Time magazine (29 March 2017), “What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Female Astronauts.” Ivins was responding to the “longstanding idea that says astronauts begin to lose their grip on reality after being in space for an extended period of time” and the suggestions that women returning from spaceflight were “supposed to be different in some way from men returning from similar” experiences. Ivins ended her piece, writing, “All I can conclude is that perhaps an astronaut who loses his or her grip on reality after spending time in space wasn’t holding on too tightly to begin with.” No verification that Ivins knew Nowak.
As a critic, I’d say skip “Lucy in the Sky,” particularly if you’re a Beatles fan or even a fan of “ripped from the headlines” inspired crime films. “Lucy in the Sky” is more psycho and psychedelic and not even intriguing in that respect. I left the movie thinking: Someone save Portman from her neurotic thin-girl psycho phase.” Science-fiction and space program fans should instead check out the much better examination of explorers, “Ad Astra.” “Lucy in the Sky” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened on Oct. 4, 2019.