It was only a matter of time before the teenage romantic weepie conquered the final frontier – space. In “The Space Between Us” (the title “The Martian” was already taken) a teenage boy born on Mars, Gardner (Asa Butterfield), finds himself falling for a chat room pal on Earth, plucky foster kid Tulsa (Britt Robertson). But as much as he wants Earth, Earth just doesn’t want him. It’s a plight faced by many a refugee from far-off lands.
It’s 2034, 16 years after Gardner’s mother, a pioneering astronaut, found herself unexpectedly pregnant during a colonizing trip to Mars, and died giving birth to him. He’s been raised by a caring, if a bit distant, astronaut guardian, Kendra (Carla Gugino) and a busybody robot he built himself. Gardner imagines himself as one of the angels from Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (a copy was left at the colony by German scientists), an angel who falls in love and falls to Earth, becoming truly human.
“The Space Between Us” falls into the cinematic trend of planetary colonization sci-fi fantasies, capitalizing on increasing doubt about this planet we’re on. But there’s a wrinkle: All this born-and-raised Martian wants is to get to Earth, not off it. It’s just that his Mars-born human body can’t support terrestrial gravity.
Watch the trailer for “The Space Between Us”
There are charming moments on display, especially when Gardner is allowed to explore the world on his own. His quirky fish-out-of-water routine shows off Butterfield’s uniquely disarming qualities as a performer. He’s like a teen “Amelie,” delighting in all sorts of small daily pleasures that we take for granted (sunglasses, bus doors, burgers). There are even some moments that feel like classic family adventure films, such as a scene where Tulsa and Gardner make a dramatic escape in a biplane.
Director Peter Chelsom directs crisply, swiftly, but is saddled with a script by Allan Loeb (of “Collateral Beauty” infamy) that is wildly uneven and too preoccupied with furious plotting instead of atmosphere. The film wants to express how wonderful Earth is by using an outsider to remind us of its greatness. It’s a nice thought but it’s aggressively hammered home in a genre mash-up of teen illness romance, chase thriller and space travel sci-fi drama.
Gardner’s forthrightness and lack of social training allow him to teach Tulsa how to love and appreciate the life she has, but there’s no time for it to breathe, as the film races along on an interplanetary roller coaster ride, from Earth to Mars to Earth to Las Vegas to the beach and back to Mars again. But most disappointingly, it refrains from fully committing to its underlying conceit, backing away from any true poignancy or sorrow, diluting its message with a forced Hollywood happy ending. It’s a weepie with no tears.
The screenplay is distinctly Loeb-ian: sappy, filled with faux-epiphanies about the preciousness of life, twists that are telegraphed from minute one. The characters alternate between such cheesy, greeting card-ready lines as “courage is fear that has said its prayers,” and vague speeches where the sentences don’t even seem to sensibly string together. Gardner’s Martian peculiarities justify that every emotion is stated out loud without a hint of subtext. Butterfield gives a valiant effort, but his charms never stood a chance against this sci-fi-tinged heap of sentimentality.
starring Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino and B.D. Wong. Directed by Peter Chelsom. Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language. Running time: 2:00