Movies set in the real world and based on real events should never rely solely on the drama of those facts to derive their primary tension. In the last few days anyway, Bad Education has been shown how a film can grows out of its scarcely believable reality, while Radioactive shrinks under the weight of its famous subject.
Unfortunately Lucy in the Sky is a member of that second group, although it’s never exactly clear quite what the story it’s trying to tell is. Natalie Portman leads as star astronaut (Star astronaut? That’s a better joke than any in the film) Lucy Cola, a reserved Southern woman who became a leading face during the years of the Shuttle program before becoming famous for something quite different. Her husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a character with less intrigue than Ned Flanders despite an identical accent and moustache, also works at NASA in the PR department. Other members of this messy ensemble include John Hamm’s Mark Goodwin, another astronaut, and Zazie Beetz, Lucy’s greatest rival. Ellen Burstyn also stars as Lucy’s quirky grandmother ‘Nana’, further confirming her already iconic status as Hollywood’s best dirty grandma. Drew and Lucy have a de facto adopted niece Pearl Amanda Dickson, a character the audience doesn’t learn very much about – but probably won’t mind.
Hawley’s background as a TV creator, leading unexpected hit shows including Fargo and Legions, goes some way to offer the first-time director the confidence he clearly exercises in the film’s first half, and which we see shades of as it continues. We’re taken to space in the very first scene and, like Lucy (because she’s always in the sky, you see?) never seem far away from it.
But beyond those early signs of promise, Lucy in the Sky becomes an unfortunate mess. Lucy’s straightforward internal conflict – she’s addicted to space! – isn’t enough to build a narrative of any real intrigue, and Stevens’ Drew is sent out to serve as light comic relief in scenes that don’t appear important at all. Premiere audiences are typically the most generous – some critics avoid early screenings altogether for that reason – but it soon became clear that the punters in the Princess of Wales theatre were no longer grasping the film’s nebulous intentions.