One of the most annoying marketing ploys of the movie industry is a misleading trailer. The primary goal, of course, is to get people to hand over their cash and watch the movie, no matter how good or bad it is. Still, when you have to outright lie to make your sale, it leaves a very bitter taste in the customer’s mouth. The money’s already spent, sure, but it makes you less and less likely to be a repeat client, and while truth in advertising laws are lax at best (just ask Facebook when it comes to Trump’s campaign ads), there should be at least some semblance of responsibility on the part of the studios when it comes to their sales tactics. Because it’s one thing if a movie sucks, but it’s a whole other dimension of anger when something sucks and you’ve been duped into thinking it might be good.
Such is the case with Lucy in the Sky, the latest star vehicle for Natalie Portman, co-written and directed by Noah Hawley in his feature debut (he’s best known for FX series like Legion and Fargo). The trailer for this film implied a trippy, otherworldly experience for an astronaut, and whether she could recapture the high of space travel, pushing herself to be the very best. While there are hints at what the movie’s really about, the big message is one of a grand journey, both in space and of the mind, sort of like Ad Astra.
I’ve never done this in a review before, but here’s the actual trailer, so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.
That mystical exploration of the mind of an explorer, the complex questions about solitude and what really constitutes “the right stuff,” is not what we end up getting. Instead, we get a batshit love triangle among astronauts, based partly on actual events.
In one of the most bizarre news stories of my adult life, back in 2007 an astronaut named Lisa Nowak (née Lisa Marie Caputo) essentially lost her shit due to a relationship with a fellow astronaut. So she did what any reasonable person would do. She strapped on an adult diaper and drove all the way from Texas to Florida to assault her ex’s new girlfriend. That’s what Lucy in the Sky is really about. Lucy Cola (Portman) is just a fictionalized version of Lisa Nowak, with the story jury-rigged to be some weird quasi-feminist anthem, and a name change solely for the purpose of music director Jeff Russo making a faux-ethereal cover of the Beatles hit, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
*Side note, that’s another movie marketing practice that needs to die. If you’re going to license a song for a movie/trailer, just use the damn song. No one is asking for a Lorde-esque, throaty cover of a song we all love. Just play the song we all love. At some point soon, I’ll do a “Back Row Thoughts” column about this and other ad tactics that seriously need to disappear.*
Anyway, back to the dumpster fire at hand. Lisa, er, Lucy is a specialist on a NASA Space Shuttle Mission. It’s never explained what her specialized field is, but who cares? It’s only outer freaking space! She’ll wing it. She gets a glimpse of the infinite, and gains a thousand yard stare. With the mission complete, she comes back down to Earth, reunites with her husband, who works in NASA’s PR department (Dan Stevens), and gets right to work training for her next potential mission in a year.
During this time, she also takes on the responsibility of raising her niece, Blue Iris – a name that somehow nobody laughs at or suggests is a porn/stripper pseudonym – because her brother is a deadbeat. Iris is played by Pearl Amanda Dickson. On top of that, Lucy constantly checks in on her crotchety grandmother, played by Ellen Burstyn, whose “I’m too old to give a fuck” attitude is the one bright spot in the film.
Despite standing rules against fraternization, Lucy begins a sexual affair with Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), a fellow astronaut who invites her into his “club” now that she’s seen beyond. Lucy basically abandons all decorum for the sake of her fling, as the “danger” of it is the only way she can still feel the adrenaline rush she had out in space. She also becomes insanely jealous of a younger woman named Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz), who is competing with her for the next mission, and who also sleeps with Mark, because being a divorcé, Mark has no qualms about the casual nature of his relationships.
The competing pressures of work, romance, and family begin to take a toll on Lucy, and she begins to lose her grip, even going so far as to disobey a direct order during a training exercise that could result in her drowning. Of course, because she’s the best and always has been, she still completes the job without her heart rate raising at all. Some suggest that she wasn’t ready to go into space the first time, and that her need to get back on a shuttle is making her obsessed, that her mental faculties are breaking down due to some form of “space sickness,” which is patently absurd. Of course, in Lucy’s mind, it’s just men trying to keep a perfect woman down, and (as partially revealed in the trailer) if she were a man this wouldn’t even be a discussion. Come the fuck on!
This film goes out of its way to exonerate Lisa Nowak through Natalie Portman, and it’s both insulting and intellectually dishonest. A person snapped and committed a crime, for which she ultimately served no jail time (which begs the question of why we’re even bothering with this story, when there’s a litany of more positive stories of trailblazing women astronauts we could tell instead). Here, the movie does some really fucked up mental gymnastics to absolve her completely, making this all about men once again denying the achievements of women by using the “she’s too emotional” excuse. She’s the best. She’s always been the best. How dare you question her bestness! No matter who she talks to, be it Mark, Iris, or even Erin, it all comes back down to how men are holding powerful women back. Suck it, Bechdel Test! The film even goes so far as to change the core facts of Lisa Nowak’s story, first eliminating the embarrassment of adult diapers altogether, and then by having her attack Mark instead of Erin, because again, it’s the men’s fault.
I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman, but this just doesn’t work. But then, I’m a man, so my opinion isn’t even valid, if her character is to be believed. It doesn’t matter that she’s trying to claim a moral high ground even though she’s cheating on her husband. She deserves the thrill! She’s a spacebound Madame Bovary! It doesn’t matter that Portman plays Lucy with this irritatingly affected southern drawl like Amy Adams in Junebug. She’s a Texas badass, and you don’t mess with Texas! It doesn’t matter that no matter how good she is at the technical aspects of her job, ignoring orders in space will jeopardize the entire mission and get people killed. You just don’t recognize how awesome she is! It doesn’t matter that when Iris has a bad day she plays a song from 2017 (“Shine” by Mondo Cozmo) even though Lisa Nowak’s story happened in 2007 and the last Space Shuttle mission of any kind took place in 2011, so no matter what your timeline is, it’s wrong! It doesn’t matter that the film ignores basic internal logic for the sake of the affair. HER HUSBAND WORKS FOR NASA TOO! HOW WOULDN’T HE KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON? AND IF FRATERNIZATION ISN’T ALLOWED, HOW WERE THEY ALLOWED TO MARRY AND STILL WORK TOGETHER IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE?!?! None of that matters, because the way this film is presented, any objective criticism or concern from someone with XY chromosomes is just an attack. I’m just another hater writing the character off for being too emotional.
Finally, and this is a rare moment for me, I’m going to call out the editing. Regis Kimble is the credited editor, also making his feature debut after years of work in TV, including on shows that Noah Hawley has worked on. So whether this decision was Hawley’s or Kimble’s, it needs to be called out for the massive mistake that it is.
You see bits and pieces of it in the trailer, but the aspect ratio of the film changes constantly. It’s clear the film was shot in a standard widescreen format, likely 16:9. But throughout the film, it changes, with letterboxing coming in from the sides or from the top and bottom. Sometimes a shot is shifted to the left or right side, and sometimes it remains centered. Sometimes the screen remains wide, but thanks to black bars coming in from the top and bottom, combined with a wide angle lens, certain shots look like a ripoff of Lawrence of Arabia‘s famously narrow perspective.
There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Sometimes the ratio changes from one shot to another via a cut or a scene change. Other times, the bars literally animate on during the action, which is beyond distracting. It’s also incredibly frustrating because anyone sitting in the audience who, like me, looks for deeper meaning in film, is forced to stop paying attention to the actual plot to try to figure out why this scene is 4:3 while the previous one was 16:9.
For a while I thought there might be a correlation between moments when Lucy’s doing space-related stuff and when she’s not. A few times, the shot would be full widescreen in those spacey moments, as if it was telling us that her mind was at ease, if not figuratively (and literally via the letterboxing) expanding. You could then contrast those moments with those where she feels overwhelmed with Earthly matters, and the film goes back to 4:3 to literally box her in, similar to last year’s First Reformed.
But no, it’s basically random. While a few scenes can follow that pattern, about half the other changes in aspect ratio follow none of those hopeful rules. It’s just manufactured chaos, and it made me angry. It’s hard for me to be truly angry with a movie, but this stupid trick accomplished it.
It is possible to do multiple ratios and have it be interesting. A few years ago, Wes Anderson used the gimmick very effectively in The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film took place in three distinct time periods: 1985, 1968, and 1932. Each setting had a different aspect (16:9, 2.35:1 Cinemascope, and 4:3 respectively), reflecting the cinema styles and capabilities of each era. Here? No such thing, just slides and cuts that pull you right out of the movie.
The original Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” was long rumored to be about psychedelic drugs, with some even theorizing that the nouns in the title were a reference to LSD. In the end, it turned out to be completely innocuous, as the song was based on a drawing John Lennon’s son had made in school about a friend of his. So too is the case with Lucy in the Sky. The film – and its bald-faced lie of a trailer – wants us to think the main character is a spaced out victim fighting against institutional sexism to regain a deserved rush, all while we go on a mystical journey of the mind. Instead, it’s just a crazy bitch in a diaper, and they didn’t even have the balls to show the diaper.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you go to space if given the chance? How crazy would you go to hang on to some good sex? Let me know!