Lucy in the Sky (dir. Noah Hawley) opens with astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) looking from the outside to the world she left behind. It appears as a sphere strung with lights of connection. She’s told to come in, but she asks for another moment. The vast vista is exchanged for a view from earth, a fast-moving amalgam of cars and faces and houses. The camera intersperses this with shots of Lucy, small body secured in a space suit in the sky.
This scene provides the paradox the movie at first seems interested in exploring: exposure to the vastness of space requires becoming trapped into a small, confining suit. The remainder of the movie juggles this tension of our thirst for the infinite within our finite capacities.
The movie is a thriller, not science fiction. Hawley does a careful job of framing the movie into a hipster’s retro-present. Ample landlines and the absence of smart phones, a lovely ’70s mustache on Lucy’s husband Drew Cola (Dan Stevens) and an old pickup driven by Lucy’s co-worker Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) combine to make something in a parallel modern day. After the opening credits, Lucy remains firmly grounded on Earth — Texas, in particular, also home to her no-nonsense, hard drinking, gun-toting grandma Nana Holbrook (Ellen Burstyn).
Each character explores a different solution to the tension between the finite and the infinite. Holbrook turns toward an alcohol-fueled cynical distance; Goodwin uses alcohol to fuel a desire for intense experiences. Drew, who does PR for NASA, is unfailingly polite and helpful, going so far as to take in Lucy’s niece Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson). Lucy’s work ethic — continuously oriented within incessant overdubbed vocalization of checklists and protocols — seems centered around routines of controlling external circumstances to ensure safety.
The movie shows how both the drive to escape from life’s finite circumstance and the desire to remain anchored in its routines are inadequate ways of resolving the tension caused by the innate blooming of a soul’s expanse.
Lucy’s psychological debriefing following the mission brings another dimension of this to the surface. The doctor, Will Plimpton (a wonderful Nick Offerman), recounts the experience of Michael Collins, who spent the Apollo mission in the capsule after dropping off Aldrin and Armstrong on the surface of the moon. Collins remains the human who has been farthest from Earth, and his words are haunting: “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.” Lucy insists that she does not relate; she is fine, she says, and that is borne out — her heart rate decreases in a potentially deadly training situation, as she stays focused and prioritizes finishing the task.
That Lucy excels beyond measure is clarified throughout the movie, particularly in an early conversation with Goodwin who teases her for having consistently failed to come in second. Some of Lucy’s motivation for excellence (her mode of both escaping and remaining finite) is shown in conversation with a fellow astronaut, Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz) on latent cultural misogyny. The visual of Portman’s diminutive frame at the end of a line of taller astronauts, provides the audience with a clue as to her drive toward overcoming and accomplishment. Lucy has a conversation with Blue Iris that hits a similar theme: “Boys make the mess. We’re the ones to clean it up. We can do something they can’t: Change.”
Change and adaptation, intermixed with themes of flight, anchor the second half of the film, leaving questions of the finite and infinite behind in the first part of the narrative. These are literalized in the butterflies, wasps and bees visually foregrounded as important to Lucy. They are also made explicit in her rhetorical question, “Why would god make something that has to destroy itself in order to fly?”
Lucy changes over the course of the movie: As she allows herself to let go of the need to control her circumstances, she finds it liberating, intoxicating and terrifying. Although Lucy is shown throughout the movie as unable to focus on the reality around her, the results of this are not evident until this midway point of the film.
The movie missteps at this point, focusing more on Lucy’s destruction than on any availability of flight that it allows. The question of destruction plagues the second half of the movie. Lucy learns to relax control, but has no alternative to that control other than chaos. Her experience of seeing her life from the outside has radically changed her, but she finds no safe harbor. She begins avoiding appointments with Plimpton. As her actions and reactions become more desperate, she still attempts to rely on the safe parameters of NASA-inspired language to frame her situations. These (intentionally) fall short of comedy and thus spark some sense of tragedy.
Her boss at NASA, in the final half of the movie, advises that she’s become “too emotional” and that she needs to “find distance” — although, arguably, one of her problems is that she’s gained too much distance and that the distance itself has caused emotion. Everyone in the movie has distance, astronaut or not. Most of the characters find a way to stay detached from the reality of their lives, either inserting conditions that cause chaos or attempting to cling to the pretense of security. Lucy’s condition is exaggerated and emphasized, but all of the characters suffer from a similar malaise.
The movie concludes with the presentation of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” which emerges so powerfully as to cause the viewer to suspect that perhaps the movie itself is a prolonged meditation in response to it. The short poem (well worth reading in its entirety) is best known for its last two lines: “Tell me, what it is you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Lucy, perhaps, finds this truth in her life, as framed in the coda. But the movie makes sure to highlight all the characters focused on in these final moments as having a better sense of how to navigate this tension.
It is no easy thing to be human, to be given a thirst for flying toward what is vast and unknowable even though that journey inevitably calls for some amount of destruction before allowing this gift. The movie redeems itself in summoning viewers to this realization — the knowledge that death is inevitable, that damage will come, but that we sometimes can choose what is sacrificed and therefore what we keep.