Lucy in the Sky (2019)
Written by Noah Hawley, Elliott DiGuiseppi, & Brian C. Brown
Directed by Noah Hawley
In 2007, NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested for the attempted kidnapping of another female astronaut who was involved with a mutual male colleague. Lisa brought a BB pistol, pepper spray, and a wig to the Orlando International Airport, where she assaulted the woman. The piece of this story that got the most traction in the news at the time is that Nowak wore adult diapers so as not delay her arrival time. This is what Lucy in the Sky is loosely based on, an incident does occur at an airport in the finale. There is a lot you could do with this story, delving into the psychology of Lisa Nowak, trying to figure out how someone so accomplished, one of few humans to escape the bonds of Earth, had such a profound and public mental breakdown. Director Noah Hawley decided he would rather play around with aspect ratio than tell that sort of story.
I was constantly reminded of Antonio Campos’ film Christine while watching this. In that movie, Campos tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida reporter who committed suicide on the air in 1974. Campos can tell a layered and nuanced story about a woman competing in a male-dominated industry and the slow & subtle breakdown she experiences. Christine has a history of depression and mood swings before she became a reporter, but the disrespect she faces aggravates those pre-existing issues. This was a beautifully-told and heartbreaking story. Christine is one of my favorite films in 2016. Noah Hawley, when handed a similar true story, outrageously drops the ball.
Lucy Cola is awestruck after her first spacewalk, seemingly addicted to the freedom of being off-planet. This leads to a disconnect with her husband and niece and eventually to an affair with fellow astronaut Mark. A new mission opens up, and Lucy submits her name despite a recommendation for an extended rest. She competes with the only other female astronaut in the running Erin, and a friendly rivalry ensues. When the affair with Mark goes south, and it becomes clear Lucy isn’t going back up, she has a complete break. In the third act, out of nowhere, we’re suddenly hit with dialogue about the solidarity of women when at no point in the movie, has this been a theme. That’s one of many problems with the picture, the script has such hackneyed and obvious dialogue that all humanity in the characters is sapped away.
By the end of the film, I still didn’t have a good grasp of the relationship between Lucy and her husband or her niece. The movie is telling me these people are vital to her, but I never see an actual relationship between the parties involved. Lucy’s marriage never feels real even though the camera is giving us slow-motion shots, and the composer is delivering a sweeping score. The actors are doing their damnedest, but they’ve been given a piss poor screenplay to work with.
So much of this movie is spent is signaling that what we are watching is of great import, it’s contemplative and super serious. But it isn’t saying anything of relevance. Hawley’s apparent trump card is aspect ratio changes. Within the first fifteen minutes, we get about three of them for no real reason. There is no consistency in the moves attached to character action or the themes, so they appear arbitrary. Only one aspect ratio effect was interesting, and that was during a love scene between Lucy and Mark when the edges began to flutter like curtains. If that had been the only time the film played with the element or if there was a significant reason behind why they change, it could have been profoundly compelling. In reality, it appears like an amateur playing with a new toy.
Lucy in the Sky is a film so desperate to be important and about big things. The problem is it never figures out what it wants to say about anything. We’re left with a melodrama, movie of the week, “Mother, May I Sleep With Spacemen” that feels silly when you step back and look at it. I have been moderately impressed with Hawley’s work on the Fargo tv-series and was bored to tears by Legion. Hawley has very vivid images he wants to capture on film, but he needs to figure out more compelling ways to explore them.