After a few calculated launch delays, I can confirm that The Space Between Us is finally rocketing onto US cinema screens – but not without losing momentum thanks to continual push-backs. The film is a young-adult romance about interplanetary travel, stuck somewhere between orchestral score sincerity and stale, “Men Are From Mars” goofball comedics. Imagine a movie with the situational awareness of Monster Trucks (drink every time a car is stolen?!), but the hopeful empathy of a Nicholas Sparks tear-jerker. It’s in no way bomb-worthy, but alien-out-of-orbit awkwardness cannot sustain a kiddie love story that merely simmers – never smoulders – with young, innocent romance.
Asa Butterfield stars as Gardner Elliot, whose entire life has been spent inside Mars’ East Texas biosphere settlement facility. You see, his astronaut mother (played by Janet Montgomery) blasted into space with a bun in the oven, and was forced to deliver upon her Mars landing. Baby Gardner survived the birth, but his mother did not. Even at that, Gardner’s fetus adapted to the low gravity levels, making any travels to Earth nothing more than a suicide mission.
During the sheltered boy’s sixteenth year as a Mars pioneer, Kendra (Carla Gugino) – a compassionate East Texas scientist – decides it’s time for Gardner to return home to Earth (I KNOW WHAT I JUST SAID. Go with it.). His bones are strengthened with magic-science-carbon stuff and he’s prepped for travel, but tests are not conclusive upon his first days in our atmosphere. As expected, this doesn’t matter to the curious teenager – so Gardner breaks out of a heavily-monitored hospital room and sets out to finally meet his pen-pal/love interest, Tulsa (Britt Robertson). He’s sick. slowly dying and has corporate fuzz on his tail (Nathanial Shepard, played by Gary Oldman), but that doesn’t stop Gardner from becoming a “normal” kid for a few blissful days.
One of the biggest issues here is time. The Space Between Us feels longer than a shuttle from Earth to Mars, as Gardner keeps up the same oblivious reactions with every homebound encounter. This is a boy raised by scientists – sporting tremendous intelligence – yet a horseback rancher blows his mind? Gardner’s adjustments to civilization and gravity makes his body drag like a sack of potatoes, which ends up replicating the film’s pace. A few jokes land here and there, mostly because of Britt Robertson’s stupefied state of mind – then Gardner goes ahead and eats a Mars bar. GET IT?! Because, he’s from Mars. This movie thinks it’s entirely more clever than delivery permits, which becomes a serious problem as Butterfield’s performance is fish-out-of-water in the most predictable ways. Heavy legs, blunt observations, unrequited honesty – Gardner is a child from another world, made obvious by shallow social simplicity.
Butterfield may portray the film’s focal character, but it’s Britt Robertson who snags most of the attention in her never-aging quest to remain typecast as a high schooler. Her orphan Tulsa (because she’s from Tulsa, gasp!) is the rebellious, crop-duster flying independent woman who falls for Gardner’s quirks, and it’s Roberston’s reactions that temper Butterfield’s aggressive gawkiness. She must deal with proclamations that Gardner is from Mars, as he speaks his mind without any filter.
“You’re beautiful,” he blurts out after staring at Tusla with creeper appeal. “You can’t just do that,” she replies. “If people went around saying exactly how they felt to one another, then we’d be happy all the time or something!” Through Gardner’s streamlined techniques, we learn about a girl who’s retreated from society and her impenetrable emotional armor – a much more fulfilling character exploration than Butterfield’s artificial performance.
Aside from Tulsa’s singular arc, director Peter Chelsom and screenplay writer Allan Loeb struggle with tone and humanity. Andrew Lockington’s continual score paints Gardner’s earthly exploration as this fluffy indie romance, yet the dire reality of Gardner’s rapidly declining health undercuts lanky physical comedy with doomsday heartache. This leads to Gary Oldman’s performance, who when he’s not wandering down abandoned roads (complete with longing gazes), is avoiding the reality of Gardner being held captive on Mars like a human guinea pig. You’d think his twist-reveal admission (which we see coming from a mile away) might have surfaced a little earlier than the film’s final moments – helping Gardner avoid unnecessary obsessions – but that wouldn’t make for compelling cinema! Instead, we need Carla Gugino’s mother-figure to question Oldman’s motivations around every turn – repetition that represents a useless red herring.
The Space Between Us is not without bright spots (celestial production design dazzles, Butterfield’s niceties are refreshing in today’s day and age), but it’s ultimately more a slog than serendipitous romance. Pure, quirky love is marked with an expiration date, as an outsider attempts to shake the moral fabric of our societal impishness. These are wonderful themes, yet Chelsom’s direction plods along without much enthusiasm while Butterfield plays a tired role with wide-eyed weirdness. Gardner is a human who has been studying Earth for years – why is he still finding himself so taken-aback by daily normalities? Thinking too hard dulls the warmness that Robertson and Butterfield attempt to keep lit, so try to block out all the biting gaps of logic that might distract otherwise. I know it’s a tall order, but maybe minds less cynical can get some enjoyment out of this long-distance dance with fate?
The Space Between Us is a tender love story slog that's built with the best messages, but weakened by "Men Are From Mars" goofball antics.