Film and television are very different mediums. The age of binge streaming has diluted their differences, to an extent—some showrunners now pace their shows as if they were super long movies, which is an unwieldy choice unless you’re David Lynch—but there are still artists that see the benefit in keeping television its own thing. Noah Hawley, the creator of Legion and Fargo, is one of those artists. Hawley understands the potential of, to borrow an old term, the Very Special Episode: basing each episode on its own standalone concept can yield exciting, unique results. But not every concept can fit into a running TV show, so Hawley entered the world of movies with Lucy in the Sky, his take on the story of an astronaut who lost her mind.
A cursory glance at Legion or Fargo would let you know that Hawley is quite an experimental filmmaker. The medium of television gives him ample room to flex his ideas—Very Special Episodes are basically Hawley’s playgrounds—but movies offer less runtime to try out new experiments. That doesn’t stop Hawley from cramming every conceivable aspect ratio into Lucy in the Sky’s two hours, though. The movie starts out widescreen; quickly shifts to 4:3 (the squarish box of pre-1950s movies); then morphs into a long, thin line for a bit; and later the frame only fills the left side of screen before bouncing around like a Ping-Pong ball. It’s rather distracting.
The malleable aspect ratio works every once in a while—at one point, the frame shrinks around Lucy’s face while she’s feeling trapped, which augments the mood effectively—but most of the time, it comes off as Hawley forcing moods through hollow experimentation. And the aspect ratios are only the beginning of the movie’s visual quirk overload: it’s as if Lucy in the Sky is Hawley’s sandbox for discovering what’ll work next time. That’s more forgivable in the TV medium, where early episodes of trial and error eventually give way to a cohesive show—but in the realm of cinema, a whole movie is a big opportunity to waste.
It doesn’t help that Hawley’s main weakness as a writer is only exacerbated by the switch to the silver screen. His scripts tend to overindulge in didacticism: Legion in particular would stop dead to explain its messages, usually through expository dialogue or narration. But Legion was a 22-hour story, so the didactic speeches were few and far between—in the two-hour Lucy in the Sky, they’re every other conversation. A version of the line “I’m going crazy because I saw the vastness of space and now human life seems insignificant” is spoken aloud at least three times. When Hawley tries to make a point about how women are treated in the workplace, it slams into the movie with the subtlety and dexterity of a semi-truck.
Lucy in the Sky isn’t without its charms—Dan Stevens’ performance is delightfully against type, and the second half’s more conventional rhythms leave room for Hawley’s trademark empathy. But its showing is too showy and its telling far too telling, rendering the final product a haphazard collision of squandered talents.