Lucy in the Sky is far better than its reputation

Now streaming on HBO, Lucy in the Sky is a careful character study of an astronaut — expertly portrayed by Natalie Portman — slowly unraveling upon returning to Earth.

As the final frontier, space is supposed to be the most dangerous place a person can somewhat realistically go to, the farthest you can remove yourself from humanity. “In space, no one can hear you scream,” reads one of the most iconic taglines to one of the most iconic space movies. It’s not just Alien. It’s also Gravity, The Martian, Apollo 13, and so on. A lifetime of movies has taught us just how perilous space is. One equipment malfunction or false move results in death. There’s no margin for error. In space, astronauts are a single mistake away from endlessly drifting off into the expanse or decompressing to death in a cold, dark, and silent vacuum. Lucy in the Sky presents an alternative view: What if it’s back on Earth where an astronaut is most endangered and the furthest away from humanity?

Starring Natalie Portman as the titular character, co-starring Jon Hamm, and helmed by longtime TV showrunner (Fargo and Legion) Noah Hawley in his feature film directorial debut, Lucy in the Sky is the rare kind of astronaut movie that doesn’t take place in space. The film opens with astronaut Lucy Cola suspended above Earth, gazing down at us like an omnipresent god, drinking in the universe, but it’s the only actual space sequence in the film. The rest of the story is set back on Earth, familiar territory we can all identify with and recognize. It’s where Lucy unravels — slowly. Don’t go into it expecting an action-packed space adventure. The movie methodically takes us through her descent.

In some ways, Lucy in the Sky is the reverse First Man. Instead of presenting an astronaut’s journey from Earth to space and showing us how that journey can destroy a person and their loved ones, it takes our astronaut through a journey from space to Earth and shows us how the journey back down can destroy someone and the very structures that used to provide them with support.

Like First Man, Lucy in the Sky is based on a true story. In real life, astronaut Lisa Nowak went to space, returned, began an affair with fellow astronaut William Oefelein, and unraveled when she found out Oefelein was seeing Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. She drove from Houston to Orlando, where she allegedly pepper-sprayed Shipman, unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap her, got arrested, and was charged with attempted kidnapping (among other charges) and later, attempted murder. She would agree to a plea deal, and got divorced, terminated by NASA, and discharged from the Navy.

The movie is very much a tragedy.

“For me, this story was, how does a woman go from being on top of the world to being a mugshot?” Hawley told The Big Picture podcast. “What is that journey?”

But Lucy in the Sky is only loosely based on the real-life version of the story. It’s more accurate to say Nowak’s story inspired the movie than to say the film is based on her story — hence the different names (Lisa Nowak became Lucy Cola), locations (Orlando became San Diego), family circumstances (Lucy and her husband are childless in the film while Nowak has three kids with her divorced husband in real life), and endings, and, well, the absence of diapers, which Nowak allegedly wore (she denies it) to save time on her cross-country trek.

I bring up the diapers because it became a point of contention as Lucy in the Sky’s fall release date approached and news broke that the diapers would not be part of the story depicted onscreen. For Slate, Heather Schwedel vowed to boycott the film, writing, “Without any diapers, I am frankly not sure why this movie exists. It’s like they made a Fast and the Furious movie without the cars.” For Vulture, Hunter Harris wrote, “My attorney (who also doubles as my father) has been notified. I will not take this lying down! … With all due respect: what in the hell!” River Donaghey’s story for Vice was headlined, “Give Us Diapers in Natalie Portman's Diaper Astronaut Movie, You Cowards”. The people wanted diapers, dammit, regardless if the detail contained any measure of truth to it, and Hawley’s decision to omit the diapers led to a collective groan of disappointment.

Sure enough, negative reviews greeted the movie upon its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. On Rotten Tomatoes, Lucy in the Sky carries a score of 22. It’s not at all easy to receive a score that low. For the sake of comparison, an oft-maligned movie like The Rise of Skywalker still managed to garner a 52 on Rotten Tomatoes. Twenty-seven critics gave Lucy in the Sky a positive review. Ninety-five critics gave it a negative review. When the film hit theaters a month later, equally bleak audience reactions followed. On Rotten Tomatoes, only 31 percent of moviegoers reacted favorably. Someone on /r/movies called it “a pretentious, interminable mess.” Another redditor said, “The reviews were right, Lucy in the Sky really was awful.” At least they gave it a chance. Not many people did. Across the globe, it earned only $325,950 at the box office. Again, for the sake of comparison, The Rise of Skywalker earned $40 million … on its opening Thursday night.

So, to review, nobody saw the movie. The few who did see the movie disliked it.

Except me. I saw the movie — once in theaters and again last week after it appeared on HBO’s streaming platforms — and I genuinely liked it both times. I’m here to tell you Lucy in the Sky does not suck. It’s far better than its reputation suggests.

Lucy in the Sky is less of a space movie and more of a meticulous character study. Not only that, it’s a better space movie than Ad Astra and a better character study than Joker, both of which garnered far more attention and acclaim upon their releases in the fall, one of which is actually good (not Joker).

As I’ve often said in this space, I like movies about broken people putting themselves back together again. This isn’t one of those movies. This is a movie about a person, who seemingly has herself together, slowly spiraling out of control until she falls apart.

Lucy, after two weeks in the heavens, falls apart over the course of the film, but only after her feet touch solid ground. Earth is where her life begins to unravel. Most space movies build up to the whole go to outer space part. This one doesn’t. It gets it over with quickly and slowly builds toward a smaller, but more devastating personal disaster.

After returning home, all Lucy can think about are those magical moments she spent in the sky. Everything back on Earth pales in comparison. Forget about her perfectly nice husband and her grandmother she cares deeply for and her niece she feels a certain responsibility to take care of since her brother won’t, all Lucy can think about is going back. Nothing else matters. She’s consumed by the idea of returning to space. To her, Earth feels alien. Space feels like home. Her husband, while understanding that she went through a life-changing experience he’ll never be able to comprehend, is supportive. He’s everything she could ask for. But he’s still not enough. Neither is the child he wants to have with her. They can’t fill the void. Only space can.

“I never felt so alive,” she says during a mission debrief.

When her concerned husband finds her sitting on the roof of their house watching the sunrise, she tells him to stop worrying.

“I’m home,” she says.

“I don’t think you are,” he correctly identifies.

Her mind immediately moves to the next mission she’s eligible for — she tells her husband that this will be the last one before she’s ready to start a family with him. The competition for a spot onboard the mission is fierce. But that’s not a problem for Lucy, who actually likes repeating redundant checklists and is willing to risk her life for the sake of completing a practice exercise.

Underwater in the training pool, Lucy’s helmet springs a leak. She’s told to abort. Determined to finish the job — removing a panel — and beat the record set by another astronaut, and ultimately, make it impossible for her bosses to deny her a spot onboard the next mission, she refuses to budge. The water fills her helmet. She nearly drowns. But she finishes the job.

“She held her breath upside down for over two minutes,” her supervisor says later. “Heart rate never went above 100. The whole time. In fact, the longer it went, the calmer she got. And she finished the job.”

"I made Legion, which is very much a mental health story. I think what's different about this is Lucy is not a mentally ill person — she is a high-functioning, hugely efficient, well-rounded person who goes to space and has a profound experience that she doesn't really know how to process,” Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter. “And rather than facing it and dealing with it, she just puts herself back into her work.”

Her mindset is best encapsulated by the following exchange with her niece.

Lucy: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Iris: “What?”

Lucy: “Not what. What’s the wrong question. The right question is, how bad did she want it? That chicken. What was she willing to do to get across?”

She begins an affair with fellow astronaut and the chief bad boy of NASA, Mark Goodwin (Hamm), who takes an immediate liking to Lucy — he likes her almost as much as his beer. Like Lucy, he’s been to space. Upon return, his own marriage fell apart.

“Things were different when I came back,” Mark tells her when they sneak away to the back of his truck for midday beers and adultery.

Above all else, he understands what she’s going through. The disorientation. The burning desire to return to space. The failure to readjust to life back on Earth. Lucy went from fixing shit in space to fixing her grandmother’s sink, staring out at the universe from the cockpit of a spaceship to staring out at the school pickup line from behind the windshield of her SUV.

“What’s happening right now?” Lucy asks Mark.

“You went to space, and you saw the vast celestial everything, and it blew your fucking mind,” Mark says. “So now nothing makes sense anymore.”

When things get fuzzy, Lucy runs through her astronaut checklist to ground herself. The order of it all soothes her. The goal of returning to space for the first mission she’s eligible for supersedes everything else in her life. She takes advice from her grandmother, who chain-smokes cigarettes as she’s hooked up to an oxygen machine, drinks copious amounts of Crown Royal, carries a handgun in her purse — this is Texas, after all — and tells Lucy stuff like “All that astronaut dick has made you soft.” But Lucy listens. Her grandmother tells her that because she’s not getting any younger, she’ll need to work even harder. So, she does. She mostly ignores her goody-two-shoes husband, who only wants his wife to truly return to him, and her niece, who is searching for a supportive parent figure in her life.

So, when the opportunity to join the next mission is stripped away from her, Lucy loses it. She finds out Mark is romantically involved with Erin, another astronaut who once upon a time asked Lucy for advice and eventually earned a spot aboard the mission that Lucy failed to qualify for. She leaves her husband, but takes her niece with her — Lucy can’t see the truth that she’s in no place to take care of someone else, much less herself. She breaks into Mark’s office, hacks her way into his computer, reads his emails, and finds out he recommended to their superiors that she be removed from the mission and is planning to take Erin to San Diego for vacation. She snaps back into mission mode. The new mission? Drive from Houston to San Diego to confront Mark.

“Even when she falls apart in the movie, what I liked is that in the end, when she decides that she’s going to go and confront Jon Hamm, it’s a mission. She’s on a mission,” Hawley told The Big Picture podcast. “And that means, in her mind, you’ve gotta suit up. You’ve gotta equipment up. You’ve got to get there on the road. T-minus whatever. … Therefore, there’s never a self-pity moment. She’s never unstrung in that way. She’s a problem solver. She’s just solving it the wrong way.”

You don’t need to have pre-existing knowledge of Nowak’s real-life incident that inspired the film to know that the mission doesn’t go well for Lucy in the movie.

It’s also not much of a spoiler. The plot points don’t really matter. Lucy in the Sky is the least plotty space movie I’ve seen in a while, maybe ever. It’s not a space movie. It’s a character study. The character just happens to be an astronaut.

Above all else, it’s a tragedy.

“I was taking a story that had been a tabloid story — a tabloid story defined by me as a story about human beings with dignity who have made mistakes and ruined everything and been reduced to a punchline. In other words, a tragedy,” Hawley told The Big Picture podcast. “And my goal was, can we restore their dignity? Can we remind the audience … her punishment was the fact that she lost everything that she cared about. We don’t have to humiliate her on top of that.”

Hence, the diaper omission.

"I found it interesting that response, people who said, 'There's no diaper and I'm not okay with that,'" Hawley told THR. "I thought it said more about them really; what is it that makes you want that detail, that makes you want to reduce her to a punchline again? The goal of the film is to rehumanize her and to build empathy for her, to show you that she had an emotional and existential crisis and that's part of becoming an adult."

It would’ve been far easier for Hawley to give us the diapers and to reduce the character to a punchline the same way the real-life person was. Instead, Hawley seeks to do something far more important. He wants to answer a far more difficult question.

"The way that story came out was all a bit tabloid'ed out, and I think people tended to forget that that's a real human being going through what seems like a pretty difficult time for whatever reason," Hamm told THR. "I think Noah in particular wanted to dig in there — I certainly did too — to dig into the question of what is that? Why do people unravel like that? What makes them like that?"

It doesn’t make it an easy watch, which Portman theorized could have factored into the negative response from moviegoers. We’re so used to watching characters we can either relate to or root for, but it’s difficult to do either with Lucy. Most of us haven’t been to space and experienced “rocket lag” upon return. We can’t relate to the longing to return to the expanse that she so tightly clings onto. It’s not easy to find empathy for a character as self-centered as Lucy. It’s a challenging watch. Embrace the challenge, however, and you might also find it rewarding.

“It was really this existential crisis, that Noah and I talked about a lot,” Portman told Collider. “What happens when you have this experience, that makes you feel more alive than ever and have more meaning than ever, but part of that experience is really realizing how small we are and how meaningless, perhaps, everything we care about is, in the universe? This relationship that she has with Jon [Hamm]’s character is very much about that, where he’s positing this [feeling of], nothing really matters, let’s just do whatever the hell we want, which is so tempting to go into, and she’s fighting for meaning. She’s feeling, ‘It does matter. I do care. I am feeling something big. And even though all signs point to nothing matters, I want something to matter very badly.’

“It’s the most human thing, that we can all relate to, even if none of us can actually claim to have been in space.”

At the center of the film is a mesmerizing performance from Portman, who rocks a Texas twang and sports unflinching confidence even in the midst of an unparalleled breakdown. It’s a shame the movie failed to lift off, because it cost Portman another Oscar nomination that she so thoroughly deserved. As Lucy, Portman is asked to portray a character of strength, resolve, and intelligence, but also one of chaos, anxiety, and desperation.

It’s a testament to the performance that I still found Lucy likable despite all of her glaring flaws.

She’s neither hero nor villain. She needs to be charming enough for us to forgive her for her mistakes, but not too charming that we forget her sins. Her performance must invoke empathy for a character who is losing her mind.

Per usual, Portman expertly navigates choppy seas. Without her deft portrayal of an accomplished and courageous woman losing herself, the movie would’ve fallen entirely flat. The movie is only as good as the lead performance. And the lead performance is great.

Natalie Portman is great. She elevates Lucy in the Sky. She makes it great.

As much as Portman’s performance serves as the beating heart of the film, Hawley, as the director, is the second-biggest presence onscreen.

Lucy in the Sky is Hawley’s first movie, but it wasn’t his breakthrough. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that the film was a step back for him after the success he discovered and sustained on the small screen. Fargo and Legion, both of which Hawley created, are highly regarded television series that have captured accolades at prestigious award shows, from the Emmys to the Golden Globes.

I’ve never seen Fargo or Legion, making Lucy in the Sky my introduction to Hawley as a storyteller. After one movie, he’s already won me over.

There’s very much an argument to be made that he overdirected the movie. If that’s your stance, I won’t fight you on it. In the end, it comes down to personal taste. I found his heavy-hand effective. He continually plays with the aspect ratio; the size of the shot is almost always changing from scene to scene and even within individual scenes themselves. It could be considered a distraction or “showy” filmmaking. I found it to be an effective tool to further highlight the struggle Lucy is enduring.

When Lucy is up in space, gazing down at the planet beneath her with nothing but a tether to protect her from drifting off into the void, the lens is wide and open. Space is where Lucy has a purpose. It’s where she feels most alive. She has a checklist. She has protocol. She has a guidance system. She has belonging. Like a coach watching film from the All-22, she can see everything clearly from her vantage point.

Back on Earth, where she feels trapped and lost in normal everyday life, she’s untethered and lacking purpose. The camera shrinks. It’s suffocating her.

“My hope is that maybe you notice the gag the first time or second time, but then you stop noticing what the box is doing, you just feel the feeling of expansion and contraction,” Hawley told The Big Picture podcast. “Obviously, if you resist it, then your experience at the movie is not going to be as good because you’re going to spend a lot of time going, ‘Okay the box is bigger now, okay the box is smaller now.’ So, the best thing to do is to just give yourself over to it.”

There’s a moment in the film when Lucy experiences a traumatic loss. It’s in this moment when Hawley’s heavy-hand especially pays off. Lucy heads to the hospital, but isn’t really processing her surroundings. It’s all a blur. It’s one of my favorite depictions of grief and trauma that I’ve seen onscreen, all without any actual lines of dialogue. The only sound comes from the score, a fitting cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” that’s slower and trippier than The Beatles’ original version, making it more fitting for that exact moment in the film than the one we all know. Lucy isn’t moving forward toward her objective as much as her surroundings are flying past her.

The edges of the screen are almost always blurred back on Earth, where she’s trying to find her footing. Hawley seldom uses the entire screen, but he doesn’t waste an inch.

“There’s a moment when this affair begins with Jon Hamm and they’re kissing for the first time where literally the edges of the box start to waver, almost like heat lines,” Hawley told The Big Picture podcast. “It’s starting to get close to that feeling of being in space again. It’s trying to, but it doesn’t get there. But you feel the energy of it literally on the edges of the frame.”

Overhead shots are frequent, giving us the same view she had from space, the view she wishes she could see again, the one we as viewers are afforded. We can make sense of the chaos consuming her life as outside observers, but she can’t as the one living it.

Up there, looking down on Earth, she found clarity. “I saw my house from space. Not literally, but my life,” she says. Down on the ground, without a bird’s-eye view to make sense of the jumbled and confusing nature of everyday life, she found obscurity. Nothing makes sense to her.

“You go up there, you see … the whole universe. And everything here looks so small. We’re so small. And then you splash down. You go to Applebee’s and Monday Night Football. Clip your toenails. And all I can think about is —”

“When can I go back?” someone else finishes for her.

It’s more than just the visual text of the film that adds to the disorientation. It’s also the sound design. Noises are blurred. She’s hearing everything going on around her, but through distortion. It’s only in space that she sees and hears everything clearly — until the end.

When the end does arrive, the camera is finally wide and open again. The sound comes in clearly. She’s taking everything in around her. She’s fully present for the first time since she was floating above Earth. This time, she’s on solid ground.

All of this isn’t intended to suggest that Lucy in the Sky is a perfect movie. The supporting characters are mostly undercooked. It is undeniably overdirected. Hawley doesn’t hide behind the camera. If you don’t like showy filmmaking, you probably won’t make an exception for Lucy in the Sky. And then, of course, there’s the absence of the diapers. While I endorse Hawley’s mission statement and fully understand his line of reasoning, I still think the diapers could’ve fit into the story he was trying to tell.

It also isn’t intended to suggest that everyone reading this will agree with my stance that the movie actually isn’t bad, but good. I have a hard time believing I’m entirely in the right and all 95 critics who filed negative reviews of the film are entirely in the wrong. I just know that this movie — for most of the reasons I listed above, plus reasons I’m probably not even aware of — connected with me. I don’t know if it’ll register for you too. But if you made it this far, I’m guessing it will. I think it’s worth a watch now that it’s available for streaming on your (parents’) HBO account.

For what it’s worth, it sounds like Hawley is aware he made a polarizing film. But it also sounds like he did that entirely by design.

“John Landgraf once said, when talking about how he programs FX, ‘I’d rather make something great for somebody than something good for everybody,’” Hawley said on The Big Picture podcast. “And I think that’s a really great organizing principle.”

I said last week that I like to judge a movie on how well it does what it is trying to do. Using that barometer, Lucy in the Sky passes the test.

It wants to be a tragic character study that humanizes someone who's been reduced to a punchline and lost everything that matters to her, and that’s what it does. Lucy isn’t an astronaut anymore. She won’t be going back to space — the only place she wants to be — ever again. I’ve never been to space and never will, but I can identify with the idea of not getting something you’ve desperately wanted and worked so hard for. The vast majority of critics and moviegoers didn’t love the movie, but I did. In that sense, Hawley accomplished his mission.

There’s greatness in Lucy in the Sky. I’ve seen it. If you give it a chance, you might too.