Noah Hawley has made a name for himself in creating stories with abnormal narratives and surrealistic visuals. His shows Fargo and especially Legion have become critically-praised exercises in experimental storytelling. So why is it that his debut feature film LUCY IN THE SKY is receiving so much disdain? Maybe because its protagonist is a deeply flawed one, or maybe because it’s simply a difficult story to tell. Regardless of reason, Hawley’s first foray into cinema is being largely ignored at best, and vilified at worst. I have to admit, upon viewing some of the promotional trailers and clips for the film I found myself having very little interest in the film’s story. From what I could tell, the movie seemed like any run-of-the-mill drama about love, lust, and infidelity. I’m thrilled to say I was deeply mistaken, and the film proved to be so much more than that.
The film follows astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) as she returns to her life on earth from her first mission in outer space. From the moment she touches down on her home planet, she finds herself longing to return to the stars above. Her time in outer space has left such a monumental impression on her, that her ordinary life feels especially confining and claustrophobic. As she struggles to re-acclimate, she enters a state of deep depression and disconnection. She begins to feel distant from her relentlessly jovial husband (Dan Stevens), and the only person that seems to really get what she’s going through is a fellow astronaut named Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). Their connection to one another is natural and instantaneous, and their friendship soon turns into a love affair. The affair is the only thing that makes Lucy feel alive after being in space, and she’s willing to risk everything she’s established in her life so far in order to experience that feeling once again.
At the same time, Lucy is pushing herself to her mental and physical limits while training for the next potential mission to space. She begins to believe that being an astronaut and going to outer space is her sole purpose in life, and her mind is endlessly filled with thoughts of returning to the final frontier. At the same time, her affair with Goodwin is becoming more and more obvious to her husband, and Goodwin himself is not all that he once appeared to be. Slowly but surely, Lucy’s life begins to unravel around her, mostly at the hands of the men in her life. She’s continuously gaslighted and taken advantage of as her emotional and mental state continues to deteriorate, until finally she reaches her breaking point.
The film is loosely based on the real-life events surrounding astronaut Lisa Nowak. I won’t spoil too much of the plot, because I do feel LUCY IN THE SKY is a good film, and one that deserves to be seen fresh. It’s a particularly difficult story to tell, because infidelity is not a trait we typically like to find in our favorite protagonists. Real life, as proven in the actual events that inspired the film, is much more complicated than good and evil. Real people are layered—containing both light and dark, and Lucy is simply a more grounded protagonist. She makes questionable choices in the film, but all of which come at the hands of those pushing her towards them. She’s less a woman driven to madness, and moreso a woman driven to taking matters into her own hands. Although we know what Lucy ultimately ends up doing in the film’s finale is moralistically wrong, we still feel strangely empowered by her conviction. Hawley masterfully captures this difficult tone through his brilliant use of unconventional aspect ratio changes, and surreal, abstract imagery. The scenes on Earth are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, as a reflection of Lucy’s perspective—condensed, trapped, banal. When Lucy dreams of space, and revisits her memories of her time there, the screen expands into gorgeous widescreen, suddenly granting the audience a big breath of fresh air. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but only assists the film in telling its story.
Hawley is undeniably a unique and fresh voice in filmmaking. With the help of Natalie Portman’s genius, Oscar-worthy performance, and some gorgeous cinematography from Polly Morgan, LUCY IN THE SKY manages to shine and twinkle much like the stars that inspired it. I was pleasantly surprised by the film, and look forward to seeing more directorial work from Hawley in the future. If you think there’s a chance you could enjoy the film, ignore the poor Tomato score, it’s totally subjective and useless anyway. LUCY IN THE SKY is an impressively original film that takes big chances and mostly succeeds. I can’t recommend it enough.