There’s no real right or wrong way to do science fiction, but when you have such an interesting sci-fi premise as the one in The Space Between Us—how the first human born on Mars might react to Earth—it’s a shame when the film transitions away from the genre altogether for something more suited for a Young Adult novel.
The movie starts out promising enough, as we listen to Gary Oldman’s Nathaniel Shepherd—a cross between Richard Branson and Elon Musk—telling his advisors of his plans not only to fly to Mars but to actually inhabit it. Two months into the trip, lead astronaut Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers she’s pregnant. Too risky to return home, they decide she should have the baby on Mars, knowing her child may never be able to leave.
A further 16 years later, and her son Gardner (Asa Butterfield) is eager to find out who his father really is since Sarah, in a very Disney twist, died during childbirth. Eventually, the powers that be are convinced to let him come to Earth, where he’s probed and studied. But wanting to know more about the planet, Gardner runs off to find his internet pen pal, whom he knows as Tulsa (Britt Robertson), and soon the two fledgling lovebirds are escaping on a cross-country journey to discover Gardner’s real father. Unfortunately, Gardner’s physiology isn’t accustomed to Earth’s gravity, so it turns into something of a race against time.
Happy to merely re-navigate the concept of a boy and a girl from distant worlds (quite literally in this film) finally having a chance to be together, The Space Between Us is basically a road trip with very few signs of the sci-fi elements introduced in the movie’s intriguing first act. Instead, it switches gears into something more like the romantic teen adventure we might have seen in the ‘80s or ‘90s, but with a few unexpected technological advancements thrown into the margins. As a consequence, fans of a certain YA aesthetic may eventually get into the new movie, but only if they can tolerate the two young actors.
Butterfield is somewhat stiff in the role of Gardner, but in this case it actually works in his favor when he’s trying to be awkward while adjusting to Earth and the people he encounters, adding some needed levity. Robertson’s character is quite bratty and cynical compared to the innocence brought by Butterfield, and she takes some adjusting to, but she also grows on you.
Together, they’re not bad, but it’s only after you’ve spent a little time with them that you can you believe that she’d have any sort of romantic interest in him. The romance aspect of the story, rather than being its strength, does feel forced and takes the movie further away from the space travel and life on Mars premise that was so compelling to begin with.
Oldman is excellent, as always, although it’s somewhat dodgy when the film cuts forward 16 years, and he looks exactly the same. Also arbitrarily, he’s vanished for those 16 years as Gardner was growing up, which isn’t treated as too suspect. (The movie never really gets into why he disappeared but his return is met with little shock or surprise.) Carla Gugino also does a passable job as Gardner’s caretaker Kendra, but it just doesn’t seem to be a role that challenges her very much.
The movie is capably directed by Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) who takes full advantage of the gorgeous American landscapes. Like other works by him and screenwriter Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty), it’s a film that leans heavily on the sentimentality and its sweeping musical score. But even with that in its favor, the movie tends to fluctuate between being corny, sappy, and outright ridiculous. And yet, it’s hard to completely hate it.
The Space Between Us isn’t terrible, and the filmmakers probably meant well, but anyone interested in the sci-fi aspects of the movie will probably be disappointed once it turns on the engine of a cheesy teen romance movie that never stops.
The Space Between Us is now playing nationwide.