I think the biggest shock about this teen-oriented science fiction adventure is that it’s not based on a YA novel. From an original screenplay by Allan Loeb and directed by Peter Chelsom (the man who has helmed everything from Serendipity to Hannah Montana: The Movie), The Space Between Us is about a boy (played at 16 by Asa Butterfield) whose astronaut mother became pregnant with him just before she launched into space to begin life on a new colony on Mars. She dies during childbirth on the red planet, leaving baby Gardner Elliot to grow up on Mars parentless (the identity of his father is unknown), raised in secret for fear of a public outcry on Earth.
Because of gravitational differences, Gardner is told he can never go to Earth because it might literally kill him, but when he meets a similarly aged girl, Tulsa (Britt Robertson, from Tomorrowland), online, he becomes determined to sneak off the planet to visit her. She has no idea where he’s from or what his story is, but the two seem like kindred, rebellious spirits with hormones to match. On Mars, Gardner is the responsibility of Kendra (Carla Gugino)—I guess because she’s the motherly type—but even she can’t stop this incredibly smart kid from messing with the electronics and finding a way to sneak to Earth.
Once on Earth, Gardner has trouble moving around but adjusts to the gravity and surprises Tulsa at her Colorado school. When she finds out that he doesn’t know who his father is, the two set off searching for him (school be damned!) using the few clues they have. And with that The Space Between Us shifts from a science fiction story to a road trip love story. When the head of the original Mars program (Gary Oldman) finds out he’s missing on Earth, he comes out of seclusion to seek him out, so the film also becomes a chase movie, with a bit of a race-against-the-clock scenario tossed in since Gardner’s organs are slowly failing because of the gravity.
The truth is, The Space Between Us is a harmless, non-threatening enough film that has a bit of a schizophrenic sense of what it wants to be. I’m all for a film starting out as one thing and turning into something else, or shifting tones throughout the proceedings, but this movie changes genres out of desperation more than necessity. The science fiction portion of the film works and looks the best, and he ethical considerations of having a child born and raised on another planet would have had endless possibilities for places the story could have gone (for example, I wonder if he would be banned from entering the country for being an illegal alien). But the love story and daddy search are aimless and ill conceived as plot points. Nothing in Gardner’s life (or possible death) really changes if he finds out who his father is (Hint: it’s pretty obvious).
Butterfield has always been an intriguing and gifted actor (his recent turn in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a nice reminder of this), and he certainly has it in him to make us care about what Gardner’s ultimate fate will be. It’s what surrounds him that is far less interesting. Oldman yells and storms around; Gugino is the one stable force in Garnder’s life (which is actually quite dull to in practice); and Robertson plays the paint-by-numbers sassy teen who says she’s lived a tough life (thankfully, we’re spared those messy details that would have made her a more fleshed-out character). So the sheer wonder of Gardner’s experience rest on Butterfield’s shoulders, and he pulls it off convincingly.
The Space Between Us leaves many bigger-picture questions and ideas on the table and unexplored. It’s a film of complete missed opportunities and bad plot decisions. And eventually, it’s all too easy to give up caring about whether Gardner lives and who ends up on what planet if he does. What ends up filling the space between us is frustration.
To read my exclusive interview with The Space Between Us star Asa Butterfield, go to Ain’t It Cool News.