Lucy in the Sky
Seeing space with your own eyes and watching the sun rise over the curve of the earth from orbit must be a transcendent experience, and one which most can only imagine. How the mind reacts to seeing a sight it has not evolved to see, from a perspective where life should not exist, is a fascinating concept to base a film upon, and it is in the midst of this that we join Lucy in the Sky.
During a spacewalk, astronaut Lucy has a moment of profound realisation and her point-of-view is forever different. She has looked down on the world as God and been entirely alone, and in this she is part of a small and exclusive club. Some real-life astronauts have dismissed the idea of being fundamentally changed by going to space, but others have expressed how much it has redefined their lives. If having a child alters your perception of the day-to-day, or looking down into the blue depths of the ocean can bring about an existential crisis, then leaving the atmosphere has the potential to rewrite your mind in a similar fashion, whether it does for everyone or not. For Lucy it does, and it is this shift that propels the narrative.
The opening sequence of the film is gloriously shot in widescreen and is majestic in its detail, and then we are quickly brought back down to earth with Lucy sat in a car waiting to pick up her niece from school in the rain. The film literally shrinks to a narrow window and we feel as claustrophobic as Lucy must in this strange 4:3-framed insight into her life. She is driven and obsessive, though bored with home and life in general. That fleeting high of the spacewalk is one she must again achieve, and like an addict she sets her sights on returning to space at all costs.
Natalie Portman leads the cast as the titular Lucy, and it is on her portrayal that the story itself hinges. It is a brave and vulnerable performance, and Portman plays it perfectly. This is the best I have seen her, and yet Lucy in the Sky will probably either be overlooked or forgotten when considering her body of work.
As the film progresses we meet John Hamm playing a fellow astronaut and object of Lucy’s lust. Unlike her husband—played gamely and with impotent charm by Dan Stevens—Hamm’s man’s man has been to space and knows what it is like to live up there amongst the stars. The two engage in an affair which offers brief respite for Lucy’s addiction, but it is never enough and does not sate her appetite for returning to orbit. Hamm is also a manipulative cad who preys on female astronauts-in-training, ignoring the no-fraternising rules to indulge his libido.
The messing around of aspect ratios and moving edges of the frames by director Noah Hawley creates a voyeuristic sense as we, the viewers, invade Lucy’s privacy and watch her control spiral away into a tailspin. This is not a film about being in space, nor one focused on return, but a story of being remade. Much like the emotional reaction of going back to work after a holiday and finding the routine drudgery dulling to the mind, but amplified, the feeling of absence after returning from leaving the planet is the catalyst for change.
The experiences Lucy goes through, often by her own creation, break her down until she becomes something else, much like the science experiment her niece is conducting. In a jar there are two butterfly pupa in mid-transformation from caterpillars, and Lucy, no matter the situation, obsessively keeps this jar safe. To her it is herself, as if she will emerge from her own mental chrysalis much like the butterfly will from its own physical cocoon as something transformed and beautiful. Altering the screen size to show Lucy’s mood as the film progresses is a smart and only mildly-distracting gimmick, but one that adds more than it takes away, as it tells us more than her emotional situation: she is in a state of flux as she is transfigured.
Though this film explores the world and beyond from a specific character’s perspective, the main force of it is not the character study itself, but the idea that a driven woman will be told she is too emotional about a passionate ambition by men who display less maturity than her. It is a tale of the consequences of motivation-at-all-costs and the patriarchal suppression of women who rise fast and strong. Lucy’s attempts to attain the heights she craves accelerate her fall to the depths, and it is there that the film comes to its “inspired by true events” conclusion.
Lucy in the Sky is a strange affair, but one worth seeing, though I think the initial marketing of the film was misjudged. I found the subtleties of the narrative intriguing, and the insight into NASA training programmes was thrilling, but overall this film is more ambitious than it is able to achieve. It is a good film, a thoughtful film, and a worthy film for Portman’s talent, but it is not a successful film, though that does not mean it should be dismissed. As an experiment that changes the way films are presented it could never live up to its own hubris, but as a drama it is fascinating. Over time, Lucy in the Sky has stuck with me, and as I ponder upon it I find it resonates more. Its echo is considerably stronger than I expected it to be. Much like Lucy, the film itself aims for the stars but falls a little short, though it makes a big impact nonetheless.