The first reviews for Noah Hawley’s Lucy in the Sky are in, and they have a lot to say about it – but not exactly positive stuff. Hawley, creator of the TV series Fargo and Legion, makes his feature film debut with Lucy in the Sky, a sci-fi drama starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, and Ellen Burstyn. There’s a lot of talent in the cast, but the story itself is not at their level.
Lucy in the Sky follows astronaut Lucy Cola (Portman) who returns to Earth after a long space mission where she began an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Hamm). Due to her experiences out in space, when she gets back she “heads into a downward spiral as she loses connection to her family” and Goodwin begins another affair with a NASA trainee. The film aims to bring a new perspective on space travels and their effects on astronauts. Sadly, the first reviews point at Lucy in the Sky completely missing the mark.
Lucy in the Sky is loosely based on astronaut Lisa Nowak’s relationship with another astronaut and her later criminal activities, which raised questions about the NASA’s process of selection for their space missions. According to reviews, the film fails to actually explore the inner struggles of astronauts, with some feeling it relied too much on this sensationalist side of the real-life events that inspired it, while others felt it should have taken a bit more from them. Although most critics praised the aspect ratio shifts through the film, they don’t seem to be enough to save it, as there’s not much substance underneath these visual tricks. Here are some samples of negative reviews Lucy in the Sky has gotten.
“In his feature debut, director Noah Hawley — whose work on TV’s Fargo and Legion is exemplary — tries every trick in the first-timer’s handbook, from shifting aspect ratios to skewed points of view, to give the illusion of action with a subversive agenda. In truth, there’s nothing underneath but a soap opera plot borrowed from real life. [...] Though Lucy in the Sky differs in more than names from that space-age Fatal Attraction, it infuses Hawley’s film with a tabloid vibe that tends to reduce his anti-heroine to a hysterical woman, a cliché that’s unlikely to play for today’s audiences”.
“Hawley’s use of these visuals to get us into Lucy’s head backfire, never getting us deep enough into her psyche to understand her very real behavior — the closest we get to that is a character reading a poem aloud toward the end”.
“The writers – ‘inspired’, according to an opening disclaimer, by the saga of astronaut Lisa Nowak – struggle to point to a through-line between Lucy’s transcendent experience in space, her overcompensating work ethic in a masculine environment, her affair, and ultimately her meltdown. By the time the script introduces the idea that Lucy’s male colleagues may be gaslighting her, and that she may not actually be manic, the audience has already lost empathy for her”
“Portman is always consummately watchable, and she tries her best to telegraph the utter existential confusion engulfing Lucy at work and in love. But the film around her is simply not up to her level”.
“The bigger issue is that Hawley and company spend almost two hours laying banal dramatic groundwork, and then when they finally get to the climax—rewritten to involve a more ‘empowering’ comeuppance for Hamm’s fickle lothario, as well as the somewhat unnecessary company of Lucy’s impressionable niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson)—it’s as anticlimactic as it is factually inaccurate”.
Others found Portman’s performance to be the only saving grace of the film, although for some it ends up backfiring, as it makes the rest of the film’s flaws even more evident. Portman’s talent is undeniable, but even an actress as skilled as her will sometimes fall short if there isn’t much to explore about the character. A few others add that Zazie Beetz was underused (confirmed by the lack of mention of her performance in most reviews), and that Jon Hamm’s character has nothing to offer beyond the womanizer trope. However, there are some that found some positive stuff amidst the film’s weaknesses.
“It’s hard not to like Lucy in the Sky, not because it’s especially likable or even skillful, but because Portman is so committed that she sometimes seems capable of making the movie worthwhile by sheer force of will. But the moments that come alive, like that underwater training sequence, or a climactic moment of stalking at an airport, only make the rest of the film look more wandering and indistinct”.
“Portman knows how to spiral as well as any actress alive — it’s what won her Oscar — but there isn’t enough substance to drill out of this character. A thuddeningly useless cover version of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is layered over a montage that tells us more of what we already know (the song is all slowed down and emotive, like it got lost on the way to the movie’s trailer), while a renewed focus on Lucy’s niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson) finds the film leaning on a character that should never have been invented in the first place”.
“Portman’s giving it her all here – adopting a thick southern accent – but it’s not enough to erase the tropes of her character. Zazie Beetz is sorely underused and underwritten; a side note in a story that could use a stronger and more believable woman’s presence. And Jon Hamm is, well, Jon Hamm”.
“The movie is good at showing that the problem is actually not that life on Earth is boring after the rocket-fuelled excitement of space travel; it is more that our ordinary lives are revealed to astronauts as fiercely strange. To come back to Earth after a spell in orbit and look at all our workaday rituals: work, home, shopping, etc, is to take a red pill: it is to see how strange all this is and to be unreconciled to it. Here we earthlings go about our business, never quite grasping how astonishing and exotic our existence actually is. The ex-astronaut can’t go back to space and can’t ever again feel at home on Earth”.
Lucy in the Sky premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2019, and prior to its worldwide release it had a score of 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s yet to be seen if the film gets a different reaction from the general audience - though the poor reception from critics may end up hurting its ticket sales before they have a chance to take off.