Ambition is, generally speaking, something to be commended in a film. Taking risks might not always pay off, but it’s often preferable to see something attempt to be innovative and fail rather than succeed at being a boring, boilerplate experience. This is the nicest thing that can be said about Lucy In The Sky. For all of its faults — of which there are many — director Noah Hawley‘s debut film is firmly intent on standing out from the crowd. Unfortunately, while the strategy of throwing everything you have at a wall and seeing what sticks can result in an enjoyable (if not high-quality) film, this is more akin to a filmmaker heaving dry spaghetti at a wall and becoming angry and confused when it all falls to the floor.
Lucy In The Sky opens with Lucy (Natalie Portman) in the sky — if you think this is the film being too literal, wait until I tell you what song plays halfway through. She’s an astronaut at the close of a space mission taking one last look at the universe from a perspective that only a small handful of people have ever experienced. Indeed, space as a concept has a luring effect nothing else can compete with as it’s the great unknown, a spellbinding mystery both intriguing and terrifying. To see the universe from this perspective is something most of us can only ever imagine and it’s an experience that would inevitably change someone’s perspective on the vastness of the galaxy and their own place within it. The film uses this commonly understood knowledge of space as the shorthand for Lucy’s captivation. It doesn’t offer any images of the galaxy that haven’t been seen before. Its visuals are not poorly done, but they’re not remarkable either. For what it’s worth: if you want to see a recent film actually present space in a uniquely startling way, look no further than the vastly superior High Life.
Considering that after Lucy In The Sky‘s opening, the film goes on to examine how Lucy’s experience has shaped her, it would have been helpful to see her perception of space visualized, to see what the perspective does for her that it doesn’t do for every other astronaut in the film. Among the other astronauts are Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) and Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz). Upon returning to earth, Lucy begins an affair with Mark as she struggles to return to a life that now seems so small to her. She’s on edge and acting reckless, eager to find something meaningful. When she discovers that Mark is also in a relationship with Erin, Lucy’s struggle with her world is exacerbated to a breaking point.
Lucy In The Sky‘s approach to grappling with the mystery of space is to take the broad concept of how such an endeavor changes a person and narrow it down to one woman’s experience. Hawley represents this with a film that is itself broad and then narrow. And then broad. And then narrow. And then broad. And then — you get the picture. The film mostly shifts between 2.39:1 widescreen and Academy ratio, occasionally becoming extremely compressed or shifting the image from one side of the screen to the other. It’s not done haphazardly; the image is wide and open when Lucy feels a degree of freedom in space or doing training exercises and it becomes compressed to mirror her listlessness and claustrophobia in other aspects of her life. The technique isn’t a poor choice, but it’s used to such a degree that it becomes distracting. A shifting aspect ratio can subtly inform a character’s psychology, but when it’s so obvious and assaultive it stops being clever and becomes nagging.
The aspect ratio isn’t the only part of the film that could have been valuable were it not dialed up to 11. Portman’s performance as Holly Hunter as Lucy — complete with Southern drawl and a take-no-shit attitude — isn’t bad as much as it is baffling. Considering that Portman is adept at capturing a woman in the midst of a personal crisis and downward spiral, it seems likely that her odd performance as Lucy is the result of her direction and the material she’s working with. There’s no grounding of who Lucy is aside from some cliched remarks on her perfectionism and drive. Portman’s quirk-filled, volatile performance is unable to ever feel authentic when the character is this underwritten. It’s sound and fury signifying nothing.
The performance in the film that will surely be maligned but might actually be brilliant is Dan Stevens as Lucy’s Ned Flanders-esque husband, Drew. He’s a mustachioed beta-male who says things like “I have weak hands” and who is asking to be cucked in favor of Hamm’s Mark. Stevens is hilariously meek and one of the most entertaining parts of the film. It’s as if he’s the only one who realized he was in a bad movie and he decided to perform accordingly.
If the whole film took some cues from Stevens, it might have been so-bad-it’s-good, but instead, it’s just bad. Its attempts to capture the struggle of returning to Earth after beholding the wonder of the universe fall flat, and all of the film’s aims of being poignant and resonant are undermined by its distracting formal choices and off-kilter but ultimately dull characters. Hawley’s willingness to take risks may be admirable, but unfortunately, none of them pay off. Lucy In The Sky never lands.