This review was originally published during 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Natalie Portman does the crash-and-burn thing yet again in Lucy in the Sky, which was inspired by the astronaut Lisa Nowak’s fabled drive from Houston to Orlando to assault and/or kidnap her astronaut lover and/or her astronaut lover’s astronaut lover. It’s confusing because some of the facts are the same but many of them aren’t, so life and art blur. (Unlike her real-life counterpart, our heroine doesn’t pee into a diaper — I know you’re disappointed.) The principal innovation by the director, Noah Hawley, and the writers, Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, is linking much of the protagonist’s madness to the time she spent above the Earth, on a space shuttle. The changes in her brain might be chemical (loss of oxytocin, dopamine), but more likely they’re existential. The first shot is a tight close-up of her face (she’s called Lucy Cola) on a space walk and in a state of rapture, and Hawley flashes back to that moment again and again and again. And again. The movie barely has a present tense for all that flashing back, as Lucy enters a sort of extraterrestrial fugue state. The idea is: How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen infinity?
Did I mention the flashbacks? Hawley, having begun in TV’s Legion to delineate an arty middle ground between schizophrenia and extrasensory perception, takes his scrambled syntax to the next level. He even plays with the dimensions of the screen, skipping from boxy to visor slit to full frame and back. Jump cuts are the norm, not the exception, and now and then the image blurs into the muzzy-abstract. Countdowns recur on the soundtrack. I’m of two minds about all this capital-A Art. Hawley’s techniques call too much attention to themselves, but I have to tip my cap to such a bold attempt to induce in the audience his heroine’s inner flux and fragmentation. The double-entendre title tells you to expect a trip, and you get one.
Portman, as we’ve seen in Black Swan and Vox Lux and Annihilation, seems to gravitate toward losing her mind onscreen, though she always does so in the context of her characters’ physical discipline. Raised by a perfectionistic mother (Ellen Burstyn) who tells her that women have to be better — that they’re expected to clean up the men’s messes — Lucy constantly tests herself, hitting the track every day and pushing herself to beat a record for fixing a panel on the space shuttle, the training done in the deep end of a NASA swimming pool with the astronauts in full space regalia. In the most bizarre and startling sequence, Lucy’s helmet fills with pool water but she won’t return to the surface; she completes the exercise while literally drowning. (Cue more flashbacks, more hallucinations.)
Portman’s determination extends to her accent, which takes getting used to — though not as much as in Jackie. Her southern drawl falls somewhere between Holly Hunter and Elly May Clampett, and in a peculiar way, its unnaturalness works for the performance. Inquiring after Lucy’s mental health, a psychiatrist cites the astronaut Michael Collins, who flew a space capsule while his two colleagues walked on the moon and wrote, “I am truly alone.” Did Lucy feel that corrosive isolation? “Ah’m fahn.” (Okay, you think, but fahn is not fine.) “Best two weeks of mah lahf.” (Okay, but her lahf’s not much of a life.) At home with her husband (Dan Stevens), a NASA PR guy whose mustache removes any possibility he’ll be seen as a romantic figure, Lucy stares at the moon and wonders how people can lose their sense of connection to Earth’s rotation: “We’re movin’ and we forgit. Ah mean, how is that possible?” I love this performance. Portman is tip-top physically and primed to go astronomically mental.
Jon Hamm plays her astronaut seducer as a callow lush, which means we never fully relate to Lucy’s growing obsession. Lucy seems stuck on him not just because he’s handsome but because he, too, has been to space, and their lovemaking is connected to Lucy floating above the Earth. What she’s experiencing is not sexual ecstasy: It’s a heavenly homecoming. That part of Lucy in the Sky is particularly strained, and so is the use of Lucy’s niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson), whom, for some reason, she yanks along for the climactic, diaperless ride. But even when we don’t know what the hell Lucy is doing, Portman makes her certainty a blast. “I’m fahne,” she says again. “All systems go.” They’re going, going, gone.