'Lucy in the Sky' Shows an Atypically Bad Reaction to the "Overview Effect"

Natalie Portman's newest movie is rooted in some real, hard science about space exploration.

In the upcoming movie Lucy in the Sky, actress Natalie Portman plays an astronaut who is forever changed after a trip to space.

Lucy in the Sky, directed by Noah Hawley, showrunner of the FX series Legion, dramatizes the real-life “Overview Effect,” which is a well-documented occupational hazard for astronauts in space.

On Tuesday, Fox Searchlight released the trailer for Lucy in the Sky, which shows Portman play “Lucy Cola,” a NASA astronaut in late 20th century America who begins to lose grip of reality after being up in space and catching that life-altering glimpse of Earth. The film also stars Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Colman Domingo (The Walking Dead), and Nick Offerman in an undisclosed role.

The surreal trailer for Lucy in the Sky paints Lucy’s view from space as a traumatic event, which has lead to many outlets describing the film as an exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder. Here’s Ars Technica, Hypebeast, and Nylon all using “PTSD” in headlines.

But a more accurate description might be that Lucy has experienced the “Overview Effect.” It’s just that instead of it being positive — the case for all real-life astronauts — it had an atypically negative impact in her personal life back on Earth.

Coined by Frank White in his 1987 book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, the Overview Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which astronauts undergo a profound mental and emotional shift upon seeing Earth from the majestic perch of space, a view that removes borders or country names.

Lucy in the Sky Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman stars in 'Lucy in the Sky,' a new drama about an astronaut who has a life-altering experience in space. 

“I really think our planet is a paradise,” said Mike Massimino, an astronaut who spent 23 days in space, in an interview with Inverse in March 2018. “For me, it definitely changed the way I think about things.”

During a walk on the Hubble Space Telescope, Massimo recalls feeling overwhelmed by the view. “I didn’t have that feeling before,” he said. “I thought that this is a wonderful place to be, but seeing it from space, and the beauty of it, this was my feeling: This is what heaven must look like.”

Like Massimino, many astronauts describe the Overview Effect as something positive. They see Earth and human existence in a new, almost uplifting way, where everyday problems don’t seem as big of a deal, and divisions are rendered invisible. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was raised in southern Ontario in Canada, told Inverse when he took a picture of Pakistan and wrote, “There are six million of us living in Pakistan.”

“Six million of us? When is that no longer ‘them?’ How did that part of the world, which I’ve never even been to, now, suddenly, because of the cumulative effect of where I am, start to feel like us?” Hadfield said. “I think that’s when the world became one place for me.”

Given that it’s a Hollywood drama, it may be why Lucy in the Sky seems to illustrate an experience as positive as the Overview Effect as poisonous to Lucy.

Despite expressing some of the same sentiments real-life astronauts have in the trailer — “You go up there you see, the whole universe, and everything here looks so small,” Lucy says — the film shows Lucy suffers from it, unable to comprehend what Jon Hamm’s character calls the “vast, celestial everything.”

The film may also be based on real events, but there never was a Lucy Cola at NASA. In July 2018, when Portman showed the first look at her character on Instagram, The Telegraph reported the movie is “loosely” based on Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut who made headlines in 2007 for the attempted kidnapping of Colleen Shipman over a love triangle with another astronaut.

You may recall Nowak’s story, as it was alleged she wore adult diapers to drive non-stop from Houston to Florida, though Nowak’s lawyers argued this was false.

Natalie Portman Lucy in the Sky
'Lucy in the Sky,' starring Natalie Portman.

Before it was named Lucy in the Sky, the film’s title was to be Pale Blue Dot, lifted from astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which contains a popular passage that’s become closely associated with Sagan and his philosophies. The passage itself calls for the reader or audience to see the Earth from a grand perspective.

“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” writes Sagan in that landmark book, “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

There is currently no release date for *Lucy in the Sky.

Media via Fox Searchlight