'Lucy in the Sky' leaves out the most bananas detail of the real-life story

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Many of the reviews of Lucy in the Sky, which premiered yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), were negative. But not for the same reason as many online commenters have found. The internet appears to be disappointed that director Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion) made one critical change to the “sad astronaut” tabloid story his film is loosely based on. Natalie Portman’s character Lucy Cola doesn’t wear a diaper during a 900-mile drive from Texas to Florida.

The film centers on Lucy, an astronaut transformed by her trip to space, who then feels alienated back on Earth. To grapple with her existential breakdown, she has an affair with someone who can understand what she’s going through — fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm).

The rest of Lucy in the Sky is based on true events: in 2007, NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak tried to murder Cathleen Shipman, a woman she suspected was sleeping with their colleague William Ofelein. Nowak attacked Shipman with pepper spray in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport. Police found weapons in a duffle bag at the scene of the crime — a BB gun designed to look like a 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol, a two-pound mallet, some surgical tubing. The detail the press (and late night hosts) fixated on, however, were the two used diapers Detective William Becton found in Nowak’s car. She said she wore them to avoid making rest stops.

Hawley told Deadline he wasn’t interested in some sort of I, Tonya-esque parody of the outlandish and ultimately dramatic story. “I found myself compelled by the idea that you could take a tabloid story and restore dignity to the human beings involved,” he said.

“Because obviously that’s what a tabloid story is, it’s a story of human beings who have failed, who have made mistakes. They end up becoming something of a joke, but that’s a very unfortunate way to look at the lives of people that don’t go well.”

It seems Hawley and his creative team didn’t consider a practical personal absorbent pad dignified enough for their protagonist. Maybe Portman herself objected to the diaper. Either way, the film eliminated the most memorable detail of the Nowak incident, especially when you consider that Lucy/Lisa is a highly-trained astronaut who definitely wore an adult diaper during space missions and relieved herself via vacuum while orbiting the planet. The tidbit about Depends is salacious, but it’s not that weird.

What’s more intriguing is how astronauts’ private lives bleed into their professional ones. A few weeks ago, people were captivated by the story of an astronaut who allegedly stole her estranged wife’s identity from space. When you’re one of a handful of humans privileged enough to go to space and experience the “overview effect,” it becomes an inextricable part of your existence. How does that change the way you do things back on Earth? Maybe it magnified a lover’s betrayal and drove Nowak to great lengths to hang on to a man she thought could understand her.

It doesn’t sound like Lucy in the Sky digs into any of that very satisfactorily. I’ll still see it, because I stan a beautiful movie about women in space, and I hope Portman’s performance is strong enough that she’s considered in the Oscar race. But that remains to be seen.