Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Lucy in the Sky."
Just a few seconds into "Lucy in the Sky," the film's director Noah Hawley makes the audience aware that this is "based on real events," and unless you're familiar with the story of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak from 2007, then this latest space movie might not be what you're expecting.
Just as a primer: Nowak is a former U.S. Navy commander and NASA astronaut who flew on space shuttle Discovery's STS-121 mission to the International Space Station in July 2006 and spent 12 days in space. In 2004, she began an affair with former shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein; Oefelein was divorced, but Nowak was still married.
In February 2007, after Oefelein ended the affair and became involved with Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, Nowak confronted her romantic rival in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport after driving all the way from Houston. She was arrested and subsequently charged with the attempted kidnapping of Shipman. Nowak ultimately pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery charges in November 2009 and served a year of probation.
"Lucy in the Sky" is supposedly an adaptation of that story. Not quite what you were expecting, right?
While the names of the characters are different and some of the specific details have been changed, it also incorporates many elements from Nowak's story. Sadly, you might also know this story by the one element that many of the world's tabloids chose to focus on, which was a claim that Nowak carried adult diapers on the long trip from Houston to Orlando to confront Shipman. (The account has been denied by Nowak.) Thankfully, that particular detail is omitted in the movie.
Natalie Portman stars as Lucy Cola, the character based on Nowak, and she gives a strong performance. Jon Hamm plays astronaut Mark Goodwin, who is based on Oefelein — and who here wouldn't want to be in a love triangle with Hamm? The movie benefits from a cast that gives all-round stellar performances, including those by Dan Stevens as Lucy's husband; Ellen Burstyn as Lucy's grandmother; Pearl Amanda Dickson as their daughter; and Zazie Beetz as the character based on Shipman. Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro also pop up in two great cameo roles.
Probably this movie's biggest criticism is that it further fuels stereotypes of heroic men and emotional women in the so-called "science faction" genre. While films that profile historic space missions obviously can't get around the fact that every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut was a white male, it is true that many central characters in near-future science fiction stories are of the XY chromosome variety: Brad Pitt in "Ad Astra," Matt Damon in "The Martian" and even Sam Rockwell in "Moon," for example. But, there are notable exceptions, including Sandra Bullock in "Gravity," Jodie Foster in "Contact" and Sigourney Weaver in "Alien."
Retired astronaut Marsha Ivins pushed back against the movie, questioning why this rare story about a female astronaut opted to show one losing her marbles, and that is something "Lucy in the Sky" will be condemned for. Ivins also criticized the premise of the plot and denied that there is such a thing as a "longstanding idea that says astronauts begin to lose their grip on reality after being in space for an extended period of time."
In the movie, Cola is so overwhelmed by her trip to space that her perspective on everything is changed forever. Her mind is literally blown away by the indescribable experience of looking down upon our fragile, blue-green planet from 254 miles up. Her experience is less like PTSD and more like stepping inside the Total Perspective Vortex from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." (This was a phone booth-size machine that displayed, to the person that had stepped into it, the infinity of creation. The sheer enormity of the universe and the realization of the utterly insignificant effect they actually have on anything, sends the poor individual spiraling into insanity.)
Consequently, upon her return to Earth, Cola struggles somewhat as she tries to adapt to normal, mundane day-to-day life. The incredible experience of going EVA (NASA-speak for a spacewalk) and watching the sun rise and set every 90 minutes high above Earth's surface has a narcotic-like effect on her.
Her reaction to space doesn't stretch beyond the realm of believability. Being in a position to see our tiny cosmic condominium — and the endless, infinite ocean of empty blackness it sits in — would undoubtedly have an effect. So it's understandable that Cola simultaneously feels incredibly humbled and more alive than she's ever been before.
Back on Earth, Cola resumes her duties at NASA and begins training for her next mission; understandably, she's keen to get back up there as soon as possible. And she probably would've been able to eventually regulate her emotions, were it not for Hamm's devilishly handsome Goodwin. He flirts outrageously with Cola, who finds that this new source of excitement is a substitute, causing all that serotonin to be released, giving her a high that makes her feel just a little bit like what she experienced when she was in space. The relationship escalates and soon turns into a full-on affair, which becomes more and more intense. Naturally, it's no skin off Goodwin's nose, because he's not married anymore.
Portman's performance is outstanding, and her southern twang is easy on the ear. Consequently, if you've ever experienced the pleasure/pain of an intense, passionate, whirlwind love affair, you can sympathize with Cola, as this unfortunate set of events came along at exactly the wrong time.
Unfortunately, things don't get any better. Cola must deal with the subsequent, inevitable guilt of having an affair, her grandmother dies, there's a training accident at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, she's dropped from astronaut selection — and then of course she learns that Goodwin is shacking up with another attractive, young astronaut (Beetz) because … he can.
It's no wonder this poor woman unraveled.
This marks the feature-film directorial debut of Noah Hawley, whose background was previously limited to TV on shows like "Fargo" and "Legion." Aside from perhaps one or two questionable choices of framing in certain scenes, he does a pretty good job.
The flow of the story is well paced and effective — unlike the end of "Ad Astra,” which felt incredibly rushed – and the use of short, snappy flashbacks make an effective storytelling tool. Perhaps more importantly though, the central character is flawed, and those flaws are believable. Cola is a passionate person and sadly, that rare, strong passion ends up consuming her.
There isn't as much stunning cinematography in this, and perhaps some more scenes of Earth from space might have been nice … but at the same time, the brief scenes that we do have and our yearning for more reflect Cola's feeling of not being able to spend enough time up there.
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