Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson play star-crossed lovers in The Space Between Us, a sci-fi romance which, shockingly, is not an adaptation of a novel by Nicholas Sparks or Stephenie Meyer. It’s still full of the sort of contrivances that usually get explained away by some well-read fan as being faithful to the source material, but it comes from an original screenplay. However, when you realise that the screenplay was written by Allan Loeb, author of last year’s feel-bad turkey Collateral Beauty, you might start to understand why it’s utter nonsense.
In the not-too-distant future, 16-year-old Gardner Elliot (Butterfield) is the first human born on Mars. Raised by scientists and kept secret from the people of Earth by aerospace CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman), Gardner rails against his sheltered life and longs to visit his late mother’s home planet. His only contact with Earth is through a series of space Facetime calls with Tulsa (Robertson), a young woman living in foster care in Colorado.
No sooner than he sets foot on Earth for the first time, Gardner escapes his guardians in order to rendezvous with Tulsa. Together, they travel across America to investigate what happened to his unknown father, with only a wedding ring and a screenshot of him to go on. However, as Earth’s atmosphere takes its toll on Gardner, Nathaniel and his colleagues race against time to catch up with the boy before the deleterious effects of his alien physiology do.
There are grounds for comparison with John Carpenter’s underappreciated classic Starman here, but the producers currently trying to remake that film needn’t worry about this particular space race. This is a tonally and emotionally muddled affair, from director Peter Chelsom, which squanders a fine premise so ruthlessly, it starts to look deliberate.
You know you’re in trouble with this one when you see which Gary Oldman has turned up to work. Oldman is one of our finest actors, but that in this case means his overacting is accordingly bigger than that of most of his peers. From his over-written TED talk in the prologue to his endlessly hysterical yelling in pursuit of Gardner, he’s hamming it up something rotten as the film’s morally compromised Richard Branson stand-in. To give a little credit where it’s due, the script is different from those of other, similar movies in that the antagonist apparently has genuine concern for his quarry, but the uncharacteristic bluntness of Oldman’s performance does him no favours.
There are a couple of nice beats, but they’re often spoiled by the execution. For instance, we learn that Gardner is in danger because his upbringing on Mars has created high levels of troponin in his system. This means his heart is literally larger than that of an average Earthling, and for a soppy sci-fi romance, there’s no obstacle quite as symbolic as an oversized ticker. However, this revelation comes in a hefty exchange of exposition between Nathaniel and Kendra (Carla Gugino), two scientists who already know all of this and are seemingly only telling each other for the audience’s benefit.
On the plus side, it does provide a decent showcase for the young leads. Butterfield gives a performance that feels informed by a number of memorable screen aliens, not least of which is Jeff Bridges in Starman. There are shades of Nimoy’s Spock and Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton in there too, but his own lanky screen presence has a pleasingly alien emphasis here too. The script is oddly forced on this point by making it clear that his only reference for social life on Earth are inexplicably outdated instructional films, rather than the numerous adults who also live on East Texas.
Another problem with the script is that Tulsa initially seems placed more in the Megan Fox from Transformers badass chick mould on the page, but Robertson also rises above this, as a character who sympathises with Gardner’s desire to leave his home planet but can’t see why he’d want this one. As in Tomorrowland and The Longest Ride, Robertson is a movie star in waiting, who deserves a better outlet than she’s had thus far.
Still, both leads are sunk by the bad dialogue as their characters warm up to one another and gradually start delivering the kind of cheesy romantic dialogue that would make George Lucas blush. This could be why they’re not entirely convincing as a couple, but they’re certainly good enough individually in a film that’s otherwise sorely lacking in highlights.
Where Starman used a sci-fi setup to build drama out of the chemistry between Bridges and Karen Allen, this starts out silly and evolves into nothing more than a run-around. Even the occasionally intriguing score by composer Andrew Lockington is eventually drowned out by blaring, earnest pop music designed to point you to the next emotional beat on the map, and its mix of perfunctory box-ticking and slushy sentimentality is unappealing.
The Space Between Us is a wasted opportunity that hares all over the place without leaving a single footprint. As winsome as the lead actors are, they both deserve better than this film, in which the titular space might as well be the gulf between the interesting premise and its unremarkable execution. It’s not nearly as bad as Collateral Beauty, but for this particular attempt at capturing the eager young adult audience, the fault lies not in the stars, but in the script.
The Space Between Us is in UK cinemas now.