Reader, I have identified a new subgenre! We film critics live for moments like this, when we get to put a name to a trend and give it the stamp of scholarship. This new subgenre involves character studies in space — or rather, the study of space characters. Astronauts have long been depicted as square-jawed, fiercely competitive avatars of The Right Stuff. When they're not out conquering the Final Frontier, they're wearing bright Hawaiian shirts, driving sports cars, scoring with the ladies, and swilling wholesome domestic beer. This is to be expected of soldiers on the front lines of the Cold War propaganda operation known as the space program.
But a new wave of films has revised the stereotype. Going into space is hard, not only technologically, but emotionally. Every aspect of an astronaut's physical condition is monitored, and much is made of the fact that, for example, Buzz Aldrin's heart rate never went above 88 beats per minute when he was launched to the moon on a skyscraper made of explosives. But that assumes astronauts' mental health to be as excellent as their physical health. This new view of space travel posits that maybe the reason Buzz's heart rate didn't spike is because he's dead inside.
- Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky
I call these "sadstronaut" movies.
Sure, space madness has been a recurring mental malady among fictional space travelers, but I'm talking about interplanetary ennui. You might call David Bowman and Frank Poole from 2001: A Space Odyssey the first sadstronauts, but they weren't depressed as much as they were devoid of emotion. Even after HAL kills the rest of his crew, Keir Dullea maxes out at "annoyed."
There are hints of sadstronauts in the 1970s, with the crew of John Carpenter's Dark Star and the proletariat space truckers of Alien. Sandra Bullock's grieving mother in Gravity provided the prototype sadstronaut of the 21st century, but the genre didn't come into its own until Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, when Matthew McConaughey ugly-cried over a transmission from home. (When Gary Lockwood got a video call from his family in 2001, he just Kubrick-stared at it.)
Since then, we've had Matt Damon fighting off loneliness in The Martian, Ryan Gosling as an emotionally crippled Neil Armstrong in First Man, and Brad Pitt's anhedonic adventurer in Ad Astra.
Now, with Lucy in the Sky, it's Natalie Portman's turn in the capsule of sadness.
The film, directed by Noah Hawley, whose TV adaptation of Fargo has been consistently excellent, is loosely based on the case of Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut whose illicit affair with fellow space traveler William Oefelein ended in violence. My studies of Captain James T. Kirk's service records indicate that alien sexytimes are considered a job perk, but in real life, the incident was so embarrassing for NASA that they adopted a new code of conduct for the astronaut corps and wouldn't allow their logo to be used for Lucy in the Sky.
Portman plays Lucy Cola, whom we meet floating in space in a Gravity-inspired tracking shot. She's an astronaut's astronaut, a Naval aviator dripping with The Right Stuff who recites checklists like prayers. After she returns home from her first successful mission, all she can think about is going back into space. Her earthbound husband Drew (Dan Stevens) tries to provide a good home for her, but she soon finds herself drifting into the arms of Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a divorced colleague sleeping his way through the 100-kilometer-high club. Once he moves on to a younger spacer named Erin (Zazie Beetz), Lucy's world unwinds, threatening to take her niece Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) with it.
Hawley and cinematographer Polly Morgan play with aspect ratios, closing Lucy into a square frame when she feels trapped on Earth, then opening up to full widescreen when she feels free in space. I was reminded of the passages in Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos essay "Why Writers Drink," when he talks about the difficulty artists have re-entering the real world after the transcendence of creation. The same boring old self you left behind is still there to greet you after you come back from the other side, so you end up chasing the high through other means. That's the story Hawley seems to want to tell.
The story's other angle is a woman pushed over the edge by the expectations of a terminally macho profession. Most of those beats are provided by Ellen Burstyn as Lucy's tough-as-nails grandmother, who constantly reminds Lucy she has to work twice as hard as her male counterparts.
To succeed, Lucy in the Sky must balance the two aspects of the story. But Hawley fumbles the ending, leaving Lucy to be dismissed as "too emotional" by her superiors. What could have been the definitive sadstronaut story becomes a small step backward for womankind.
Lucy in the Sky Opens Friday