Hey, did you hear about the new astronaut movie starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm directed by Noah Hawley, the guy who made the excellent Fargo and Legion TV shows? No, I didn’t either, until I happened to stumble across a mention of it by chance last month. It’s tempting to believe this Fox Searchlight film is yet another casualty of the Fox buyout by Disney, but at least in this case, the reality is that it almost certainly would have been buried even without the studio merger.
So how did a film with such stellar talent fail to achieve escape velocity? That question almost makes it worth seeking out the film, even though the only way you’ll be able to do that for now is via digital retailers. After basically skipping theaters (only grossing a bit over $300K worldwide in very limited release), it’s also apparently skipping physical discs, currently existing only in the ether of the internet.
Portman stars as an astronaut named Lucy Cola, introduced to us during her first mission to Earth’s orbit. That introduction is presented via a five-minute montage of her drifting around in space, interspersed with seemingly unrelated earthbound images of things like wheat and freshly-laundered clothes blowing in the wind that would be right at home in a Terrence Malick film and make just as little sense here. Once her feet are firmly planted back on Earth, we follow her as she furiously continues active training in the hopes of getting awarded another space mission, while also balancing the drudgery of a conventional home life with a mundane, pleasant husband (Dan Stevens). After viewing Earth from space, she has a different perspective of how insignificant our lives are, and seeks solace in the arms of fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Hamm), a notorious playboy who is also pursuing up-and-coming astronaut Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz).
The biggest culprit here is the script. Billing itself as being inspired by a true story, the original story by Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi (with revisions by Hawley) doesn’t even make clear what true story that is until the final act, leaving viewers wondering about its direction for the preceding 90 minutes of what boils down to a very basic domestic drama, not in any way an interstellar adventure. Out of all the scripts this team could have filmed, it’s still a complete mystery why they were ever attracted to this one. While Portman gets another strong leading role and Hamm contributes a solid performance, they’re in service to a story that simply isn’t worthy of their talents.
Hawley has a gift for defying expectations in his projects, spinning gold by playing in the seemingly untouchable hallowed ground of The Coen Brothers’ Fargo and the odd, barely-known corner of the X-Men universe known as Legion. While he has some interesting visual choices for this film, he makes one gamble that fails miserably: a frequently shifting aspect ratio that ranges from 4:3 to much wider than 2.39:1 that is intended to show how Lucy’s perceptions shift from her dreary daily life to the awe she experienced in the wide-open expanse of outer space, but instead just serve as a source of viewer annoyance. Since most of the film is set in Lucy’s domestic life, most of the film is also set in 4:3, making the aspect choice all the more ridiculous.
Oddly, for a film that Fox has seemingly written off, the digital bonus features available on Movies Anywhere are fairly robust. Four deleted scenes are available, adding about 10 minutes of footage that was wisely left on the cutting room floor. Four other bonus features are provided, all featuring interviews with the cast and crew on the making of the film. The features do help to lift some of the fog of this confusing project, but not enough to impact any viewer’s final perception of the film.