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Midway through Noah Hawley’s directorial feature debut, Lucy in the Sky — inspired (loosely) by the disgraced astronaut Lisa Nowak — Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), jockeying to get chosen for a second mission to space, is immersed in her space suit underwater to replicate conditions of weightlessness. Accompanied by two scuba divers to a subsumed space craft in the cavernous simulation tank, she’s being timed on a mission to fix an outdoor panel.
There’s a breach in the helmet. Water slowly begins to fill the cavity until she’s holding her breath. Ordered to abort the mission by her superiors, she clutches the hull to finish the job before being yanked away by her companions. We learn later that her heart rate remained even and steady; even faced with death, her heart does not spike. On her face is the embodiment of Hawley’s film: she has seen the vast grandeur and void of the universe, has realized that even a Type A overachiever as accomplished as herself is but a speck of dust against history. She would rather be dead than insignificant. Lucy Cola — and it’s all there in the eerie stillness and resignation on Portman’s face — is in the middle of a full-blown existential crisis.
If only Hawley’s film were as measured, and tense, as that moment. A writer-producer-showrunner for television shows as different as Fargo and Legion, he doesn’t lack for ideas. The film opens in widescreen; Cola floating in space, amazed by the vast black horizon that surrounds her, intermittently broken up by the stars, the planet in the distance below her, the voice of her commander urging her back in the space capsule. When they enter back into earth’s atmosphere, the aspect ratio shifts, and continues to do so throughout the remainder of the film.
“My goal was to make a movie that was subjective,” the director has said about Lucy in the Sky. “In other words the experience of watching the movie was as close to the experience of being her as I could give you. One of the first thoughts that I had about it is the reduction of scale when she comes back from space; in other words it’s a full screen experience when she’s up there in space and she’s energized and feels alive in a way she’s never felt alive before and then the moment she lands back on earth everything feels smaller, and so the screen closes down to what is a 4×3 box and that becomes the beginning of the cinematic approach to the film.”
That approach is Hawley’s own 4×3 box that hems him in, because the drama that plays out before us is as tedious as Lucy’s life has become to her. She returns home to her dutiful husband (Dan Stevens), abandoned niece (Pearl Amanda Dickson — keep an eye out for her), and irascible Nana (Ellen Burstyn). She embarks on a tawdry affair with hunky fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) who’s had a similar experience and can understand her. She discovers he’s also screwing younger cadet Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz) and stalks them from Houston to San Diego in a pique of jealous rage not committed to the screen since Fatal Attraction. (Nowak was infamous because she wore diapers on her road trip from Houston to Orlando in order to make time and not stop to use the facilities; the film has been attacked for deleting this detail.) All the while Hawley expands and contracts the aspect ratio in various configurations until you fixate on when the next change will come instead of immersing in the plight of the characters.
The film isn’t very good, but it’s interesting, especially when Hawley relaxes enough to trust his actors. Burstyn is a salty hoot as the grandmother. Dickson is just the right balance of sulky teen and loyal niece who, by film’s end, seems the most levelheaded of everyone. And you don’t really need technical tricks when you have the precisely calibrated instrument of Natalie Portman exploring space, outer- and inner-; you see everything she’s feeling, and even when the last quarter of the film veers off into loopy melodrama as she tracks Goodwin on his weekend getaway, we understand her while we flinch at the pigheadedness of her actions.