"Lucy in the Sky" starts with lofty ambitions - literally. NASA shuttle astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is seen floating high above Earth during an extravehicular spacewalk, looking down with awe upon the web of twinkling lights that demarcate our terrestrial existence.
The sequence that opens the film - the feature debut of "Fargo" and "Legion" showrunner Noah Hawley - is brief but effective shorthand for the existential crisis that Lucy is about to experience, transforming from ordinary mortal to someone who has "seen the face of God," in the words of one of her colleagues who has also been to space.
That colleague, Mark (Jon Hamm), soon begins a torrid affair with the very married Lucy upon her return to terra firma, where she now finds everything - including her nebbish but devoted husband (Dan Stevens) - disappointingly "small." The rush of dopamine and oxytocin she experiences becomes addictive, and arguably deranging, as Mark and Lucy's affair unravels, after the glibly caddish Mark turns his attentions to Lucy's chief work rival (Zazie Beetz), a younger rookie astronaut who happens to be vying to replace our protagonist on the next space mission.
And thus begins a garden-variety story of jealousy and mental decline, loosely based on the strange-but-true circumstances of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who in 2007 was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping after driving from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. The screenplay - written by Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi, and tweaked by Hawley - includes changes large and small to the source material, but the smartest decision was probably to cut all references to adult diapers, which Nowak was said to have worn during her road trip (and which she subsequently denied).
If only the writers had made a few additional changes.
In its ambitions, "Lucy in the Sky" seems at first glance to be a female answer to "Ad Astra," but it steadily devolves into something worthy of the Lifetime channel: an expedition not to the cosmos in search of the meaning of man's existence but to the lurid corners of a run-of-the mill love triangle. If Nowak's true story seemed wild, her original narrative pales in comparison with the ride on the crazy train that "Lucy" takes us on.
Hawley, for his part, also seems to lose his grip on the material as the movie progresses, getting bogged down in distracting visual tics, including an excessive fondness for overhead shots and for changing the screen's aspect ratio more frequently than teenagers update their Bitmoji. Obvious metaphors abound, including a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis - a stand-in for Lucy's sudden sense of selfhood - and later a chrysalis being devoured by wasp, as that selfhood starts to fall apart.
But it is the story itself that never achieves liftoff.
"Lucy" could have been a film about the pressures on female astronauts in a male-dominated field, but instead features a conversation in which Lucy's boss (Jeremiah Birkett) dismisses her as a victim of her "emotions." Then there's that third act. All pretense of being something more than a soap opera is dropped as Lucy loses it, gathering a carload of kidnapping supplies that include bug spray, a blond wig and a pistol - as well as, in this telling, her bewildered teenage niece Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson) - and mumbling to herself like a caricature of delirium. Like Lucy herself, the movie finally, decisively goes off the rails.
Even the lovely poem that closes the film, a rendition of Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," recited by Dickson over a shot of Lucy tending bees - her post flip-out career? - isn't enough to elevate what is ultimately an entirely earthbound melodrama.