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In Noah Hawley’s astronaut drama Lucy in the Sky, the aspect ratio is the real star

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And Natalie Portman gets second billing

TV creator and writer Noah Hawley made his name working on shows that try to stretch the medium’s boundaries. Even given the cinematic style of much buzzy 2010s television programming, his series Fargo and Legion both clearly have a foot in the film world, from their source materials (Coen Brothers movies for Fargo; X-Men lore adapted into blockbusters for Legion) to their movie-star casting and their widescreen / split-screen / big-screen style. Watching any given episode, it’s easy to wonder whether Hawley really just wants to be making movies.

Now he has: Lucy in the Sky is a psychological drama that employs plenty of his favorite visual tricks, especially with the size of the frame. Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is an astronaut finishing her first trip into space, which is depicted in widescreen glory. “Just a few more minutes,” she pleads, when told it’s time to head back into her ship and return home. When she gets back to Earth, Hawley mostly switches the aspect ratio to the square-ish 4:3, the shape of most movies made before 1952, as well as old CRT television sets. From scene to scene, and sometimes within scenes, the frame expands and contracts, sometimes so wide that it defies standard numerical descriptions, until Hawley slices it back down to size, forming tiny windows into Lucy’s soul. Or something. It isn’t always easy to tell.

It’s isn’t easy to tell what Lucy is thinking, either, though it’s clear she’s distressed on Earth, and wants to hide it from her family and co-workers. She yearns to venture back into the abyss, and she throws herself into the competition for another shuttle spot. She also throws herself at fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), as her dorky-go-lucky husband Drew (Dan Stevens), a NASA PR guy, tries to cover up his bewilderment over his distracted, troubled wife. The story is more of a potential powder keg for those familiar with the actual events that inspired the film: Lucy in the Sky is loosely based on the story of Lisa Nowak, who ended her own affair with a fellow astronaut by allegedly throwing on an adult diaper and driving hundreds of miles to confront a romantic rival, possibly with lethal intent. It’s exactly the kind of crazy real-life anecdote that Hawley might retell in some kind of faux-folksy Fargo monologue.

Maybe it’s that anecdotal nature that makes Lucy in the Sky feel digressive rather than urgent, even knowing that Lucy must eventually confront Mark and another, younger astronaut (Zazie Beetz, immediately reprising her Joker role of “woman”). The movie’s unhurried pacing, also a hallmark of Hawley’s TV shows, masks his impatience as a filmmaker. He’s seemingly unwilling to let his scenes play out and breathe, and the aspect-ratio fussing is a perfect example of how he overthinks the movie into a stupor.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Hawley starts with a seemingly simple conceit: he uses an expansive frame to depict the vast but technically confining world outside the Earth’s atmosphere, then uses a cramped frame to depict the wide-open Texas spaces that nonetheless close in on Lucy. But switching between two aspect ratios isn’t enough to make a story come alive, and Hawley keeps tinkering with his borders until the people inside them feel incidental, even arbitrary. A subtler use of the switch might create a sustained mood; Hawley seems more interested in sustained attention to his directing. He’s a talented image-maker who seems to distract himself from offering many arresting images.

Despite the visual trickery, the most consistently memorable aspect of Lucy in the Sky is Natalie Portman, who gives a terrific performance as she’s floating out there on her own. Biting into a Texas accent, Portman isn’t too far from the twitchy overachievers she played in Black Swan or Vox Lux, though the context is vastly different. After beginning her career as a precocious kid, she’s come to specialize in playing characters whose desperation roils beneath a surface of professional excellence. Here, she gives Lucy a scrappy moxie that’s endearing and frightening; at one point, Lucy calmly risks drowning just to prove she can finish an underwater training exercise that goes wrong.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Hawley and screenwriters Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi blessedly avoid the go-to astronaut-drama move of giving Lucy a child to neglect or mourn. Instead, they provide an uneasy ally for Lucy in the form of her niece, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson), who’s temporarily living with Lucy and Drew due to her own family dramas. Blue Iris seems distant at first, but eventually, she becomes Lucy’s sidekick of sorts, caught up in her aunt’s can-do paranoia. This would be a fascinating relationship if it actually developed on-screen. It doesn’t, and Portman’s natural charisma is forced to fill in a lot of gaps.

It’s hard not to like Lucy in the Sky, not because it’s especially likable or even skillful, but because Portman is so committed that she sometimes seems capable of making the movie worthwhile by sheer force of will. But the moments that come alive, like that underwater training sequence, or a climactic moment of stalking at an airport, only make the rest of the film look more wandering and indistinct. The movie focuses so intently on technical craft that it sometimes zones right out. Hawley is still stretching boundaries, often literally, while disregarding the human experiences they’re supposed to contain.