A boy born on Mars comes to Earth and (apparently) learns what it means to be human.
The Space Between Us opens just as a team of astronauts, led by Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery), are about to begin their journey to explore Mars through a base created by the enigmatic Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman). Only, midway through their journey, it’s revealed that Sarah is pregnant and after landing on Mars – she gives birth to a boy named Gardner (Asa Butterfield), the first child ever born on the planet. Sarah dies just mere seconds afterwards, and instead of bringing him back to Earth (which would be too dangerous), Nathaniel and his corporate associates cover the whole scandal up.
But cut to 16 years later, and Gardner is a curious boy who wants to learn about what life is actually like on Earth; a boy who’s tired of watching the planet only through the prism of the movies he owns. It also doesn’t help that he’s growing more and more infatuated with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a perpetually angry outsider living in Colorado that regularly video chats with him. So through a series of superfluous corporate meetings and heated discussions, Gardner eventually gets his wish and is sent to Earth for the first time alongside his guardian/foster mother, Kendra (Carla Gugino). But when he gets sick of being trapped in quarantine for days on end, Gardner runs away and journeys to meet up with Tulsa, and convince her to help him find his biological father.
At the heart of that unnecessarily convoluted story is an undeniably sweet premise about a boy trying to find out where he came from and who he wants to be. You might even go into The Space Between Us expecting it to be the kind of unabashedly optimistic and cheesy Nicholas Sparks-esque teen romance (like I did), and to be honest, you might even be looking forward to that. A bit of good old fashioned, romantic optimism can be good for the soul. Unfortunately, where it could have very easily been that, The Space Between Us seems to stubbornly reject any notion that its story is cheesy, which results in it being a confusing, frustrating film.
The problem is that the movie sees itself as some kind of intensely dramatic, thriller-meets-grand-romantic-adventure that completely subverts all expectations and cliches of those genres. It doesn’t see itself for what it actually is, and the routes it takes to avoid those very same cliches prove to be even more exasperating than if it had just stuck with the conventions it very clearly was designed to conform to.
It doesn’t particularly help that the script, written by Allan Loeb (the writer of last year’s critically-panned Collateral Beauty), imagines almost every single one of the film’s characters as supremely unlikable people. Gardner gets away with causing more unnecessary trouble than he really has any right to, while Tulsa spends most of her time yelling at other people about how horrible either they or all of humanity are. Britt Robertson does her best to try and give the character some warmth or likability even through all of that. After already proving it in Tomorrowland, she once again makes a case for why she’ll likely be a movie star one day — once she manages to get away from movies like The Space Between Us, anyways.
Gary Oldman – God bless him – tries to instill real humanity into Nathaniel as well, a character who acts bizarrely and selfishly in ways that don’t really make sense until the final ten or so minutes of the film, when The Space Between Us reveals its big plot twist – one that any observant viewer should be able to see coming from within the first five minutes. Meanwhile, Carla Gugino is, as always, supremely likable as Kendra; the seemingly only outright kind person in the film. Because of that, she spends about 70% of her screen time being yelled at or insulted by either Gardner or Nathaniel (in case you didn’t already have enough reasons to dislike the pair of them).
The only times when The Space Between Us feels authentic or genuine is when it takes a break from the dull machinations of its plot to let Gardner and Tulsa actually enjoy life for a little bit. Cinematographer Barry Peterson frames these scenes in an appropriately romantic light that allows the film to touch on small moments of tenderness and love even when it then has its main character spout off on the virtues of learning what it means to be a human for the first time, as if he actually considers himself to be an alien.
But those moments are few and far between and despite the talents and efforts of its cast, the film ends up feeling like little more than a collage of moments and ideas that can’t seem to work with each other. So whatever silly movie you imagine The Space Between Us being based on its premise, it doesn’t even come close to how outrageously absurd it actually is… which might seem harsh, except for the fact that there’s a sequence when all of the characters decide last minute to fly into outer space (with no consequences whatsoever) in order to save a character’s life. If that sounded like a scene that belonged in a different movie than The Space Between Us, well, it felt exactly like that too.