Given the successful (non-superhero or animated) movies that have come out over the past few years, it would seem audiences have a thing for space-based adventures and romantic dramas. The Space Between Us combines these ideas into one film, which fits well for distributor STX Entertainment. This is the studio that has tried to match high concepts with moderate budgets, making The Space Between Us (a co-production with H. Brothers pictures, originally acquired from Relativity Media) something of an ambitious venture. Still, while the science of putting a film like this together is sound, the results are a little less than stellar.
Set in the near future, the film tells the story of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), a 16-year-old boy who was born on Mars. This was not a planned occurrence, but given the nature of a birth on this planet, moving Gardner back to Earth would have been fatal at an early age. Now, despite resistance from Gary Oldman’s project manager character, Nathaniel Shepherd, Gardner is heading back to earth at the risk of his organs not being able to withstand the atmosphere. However, this does give Gardner time to seek out his intergalactic pen pal Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and his father.
So yes, while there is a glossy science fiction tale being told (and a mix of plausible and made-up science to go with it), it boils down to a romantic melodrama. The film spends plenty of time setting up the stakes, before introducing the romantic element, but writer Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty) hardly does anything to make much of the consequences, outside Gardner’s health. At its core, this is a romance that turns into a familiarly bland road movie about a fish out of water and an outsider spending time together and falling in love. Not helping is the film’s refusal to explain how these two even made contact in the first place.
It would be easy to get into some of the logical issues, such as the real-time messaging and video chatting that people do from Earth to Mars. There’s also the notion that Gardner and Tulsa constantly steal cars and other means from people who really seem to need those things, for some secret road trip across the country. These are not the most important elements, but it speaks to how this film chooses to handle its ideas and where priorities are focused. Whenever it seems like it’s time to dig into the nature of being on earth for the first time or exploring the romance, The Space Between Us goes for a bland montage, with loud pop music scoring the scene.
Given the nature of a film like this, I guess it should be expected to see The Space Between Us play a bit coy with the seriousness surrounding the problems with Gardner and his situation, in favor of a lighthearted romance with melodramatic stakes. Still, early on one of the big concerns the film deals with is the very existence of this character and whether or not to cover it up. The idea balancing the life of a person with the bureaucracy associated with what to say to the press and public was handled very well in The Martian, but The Space Between Us basically forgets about this aspect as it goes along.
Really, there are a lot of ideas floating around in this film, which apparently became a difficult task to handle for director Peter Chelsom. The space element becomes genre flavoring, as Gardner’s character is even able to explain it away to Tulsa by initially lying to her about having a disease and being quarantined, which is what holds him back. One could have actually made that the truth and the film would hardly suffer, showing just how loose this high concept is. To its credit, the film does utilize its budget to create a decent look for zero-G scenes and other space and Mars-related sequences, but I wish it had more meaning, given the effort to make it convincing.
Ideally the cast is what should help the film amount to more. Butterfield is fine. He plays up the notion of being new to Earth fairly well and physically gets across the idea of the planet betraying his body slowly over time. Robertson does what she can with a one-note character. There is some minor backstory that I would say is better filled out in the book, except there is no book. The best work comes from Carla Gugino as astronaut Kendra Wyndham, the maternal figure for Gardner, who does her best to play a mentor and kindhearted soul trying to look out for an innocent. Not fairing as well is Oldman, who basically sleepwalks his way through the film (you actually hear his real accent for a change, which was all kinds of off-putting). He’s not bad, because Oldman is just that good, but the film really plays up his moments, which largely involve screaming his lines to anyone who will listen.
The Space Between Us amounts to nothing all that special, beyond a unique presentation of a YA romance story. It never rises above what can easily be seen as the product of putting two popular ideas together. With a script that feels far too shallow in terms of how it handles actual human emotions and relationships, it was basically up to the actors and some clever production design ideas to make this film work. Sadly, while they were up to the task, the mission was not a success.