There is a part of me that wonders had The Space Between Us come out in the 80’s, and I was a child if I would have just loved the bejeezus out of the movie. To be clear, I didn’t love the film. I didn’t hate it either sometimes.
Therein lies the rub. The movie has charm and from time to time manages to succeed in drawing you in. But the movie is also galactically stupid. So much so you are pulled out of the story either by laughter or outrage.
The beginning of the movie lulls you into a false sense of security. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) is working with NASA to fly the first manned mission to Mars. They don’t want to colonize so much as see if colonization is possible.
The crew is led by Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery). Sarah is a brave and inspirational figure. At least I think she’s supposed to be. After docking at the International Space Station, we soon learn Sarah is pregnant. Since this movie so abundantly pro-science, abortion is never discussed. I bring this up because there is a great deal of discussion of what to do.
Do they cancel the mission? Bring her back? Or wait until she lands on Mars and let her raise the baby there? Yes, you read that right. Apparently, for the sake of this movie, a trip to Mars would take approximately nine months. This movie takes place in the near future which makes me really excited because apparently, we have some breakthrough in interplanetary travel coming right around the corner.
Since abortion is off the table, this is a mainstream family movie, after all, of course, she will have the baby on Mars. This is after a whole slew of conversations about how irresponsible Sarah is and what a horrific setback this could mean to the entire mission. Nathaniel himself is deeply disappointed and more than a little outraged. This is his baby, the Mission to Mars, after all.
Soon after landing Sarah is rushed to the makeshift hospital on Mars and promptly dies giving birth. Sarah went from brave, fearless explorer to irresponsible harlot to dead Mom in under twenty minutes. It’s quite a character arch for an actress to travel. Nathaniel is told of this and now must decide what to do with the baby.
More discussions with his business partner Tom Chen (BD Wong) about the fate of the child, Gardner Elliot ensue. They decide for the sake of the mission, Sarah’s pregnancy will be kept secret as well as Gardner’s existence. The PR would just be a nightmare. Not to mention since Gardner was born on Mars it’s very probable his body wouldn’t be able to withstand Earth’s atmosphere. The whole low gravity of Mars versus Earth’s heavy gravity classic plot device.
Fast forward 16 years, and we have a teenaged Gardner (Asa Butterfield) running around tricking robots and using his magnetic tracking chip to disarm security alarms, and obsessively watching classic German art house films. Ah, the flower of youth. Incidentally, it’s here that The Space Between Us violates the Sherman rule of “A character should never watch a movie better than the one we’re being forced to watch.” In this case Wim Wender’s haunting classic Wings of Desire. A movie Gardner watches without the subtitles because one of the Germans left it behind. Why doesn’t he figure out a way to translate it or get the DVD or whatever to translate-hold on. He’s watching a DVD…in the future in space!!!???
We know he has streaming capabilities because he’s secretly skyping with a girl, Tulsa (Britt Robertson) back on Earth. He can personally skype with some rando girl on Earth via a secure government space station on a distant planet, and yet subtitles are beyond him? It’s here we start to discover that Gardner isn’t nearly as smart as the movie thinks he is.
Outside of that Gardner is just your average ill-tempered moody teenager. He does what most teenagers his age would do. He sneaks out of the lab, steals a rover, and races around in furious figure eights and crashes. He is rescued and brought back to the lab by Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino). Kendra apparently is Gardner’s de facto adopted Mother. It’s never really explained. We know she wasn’t part of the original mission so she must have come on a later one. Considering by the movie’s own logic the trip to Mars takes barely over half a year we have to assume there have been other trips in the past sixteen years.
Kendra is furious with Gardner. She is also perplexed at how Gardner managed to get out of the lab. “Raised by scientists.” He says before sulking off to his bedroom. That line will be used more and more as the movie goes on. “How did he know to turn on the gas? How did he figure out the alarm?” The answer will always be “Raised by Scientists.”
I don’t think it means what the movie thinks it means. For a boy raised by scientists, Gardner is amazingly obtuse and wildly incurious about how things work. (Subtitles anyone?) After he arrives on Earth, he wants to meet his father. Nathaniel says no they have to run tests. Because you know, scientist.
Gardner is infuriated. Why can’t he just be allowed to live? Because you know, “Raised by Scientists.” He also wants to meet Tulsa for…science. Cue Garnder escaping NASA to go to Colorado to meet Tulsa so she can help him find his Father. You know what that means? Road trip!
No seriously. After arriving at Tulsa’s high school unannounced and after not speaking to her for months the two run off together to help find Gardner’s dad. Riddle me this: If you have Gary Oldman and BD Wong as the only main male actors and the actor playing the father is not an actor as well known as them, what are the chances that he is not the real father?
If you answered pretty good, congratulations you are too smart for this movie. If you don’t quite understand what I’m getting at or are baffled by who the father could be? You are still too smart for this movie. This is a film where a crop dusting plane crashes into a barn and explodes in a Michael Bay sized fireball. Because science.
This is a movie where it is discovered Gardner’s heart is too big and the movie means it both literally and figuratively. Where Gardner takes money from the other astronauts and then berates Tulsa for daring to steal so they can survive on their road trip/run from the law. Where the cure for an enlarged heart attack or whatever the hell happens to him is taking a shuttle and flying it above Earth’s stratosphere.
Peter Chelsom’s direction is so overblown and misguided he’ll have you gleefully giggling when a character collapses into the ocean. The movie, on the whole, is easy on the eyes. Chelsom never puts the camera in the wrong place, but he also never puts it the right place. There are times where the whole thing feels more like some inspirational YouTube video starring a couple of benighted teenaged idiots.
The screenplay by Allan Loeb, he of Collateral Beauty fame, is the real culprit. As we move from hackneyed moment to hackneyed moment, Loeb undercuts our intelligence every step of the way. The dialogue is such that we have to be told time and time again, these are scientists. Because you’d never know it by listening to them or watching them.
Whatever charm the movie has, and it has a little, comes from the actors. Asa Butterfield is a gangly odd looking boy, but he’s likable in that weird cinematic bug-eyed way. He overplays it a bit much sometimes, and I’m not sure if his performance is all that consistent. But he can hold a scene if he needs to.
The great crime aside from knowing Oldman and Gugino can and have done better is the utter misuse of Britt Robertson. Despite what the screenplay may make her say, Robertson imbues Tulsa with a sense of intelligence and wariness. It’s a performance that is almost in direct defiance of the script itself.
I could’ve enjoyed this movie. I could’ve. But then Gardner uttered the last line, and all hope was lost. Are there worse films playing in theaters right now? Arguably yes. Are there better movies playing right now? Indisputably so.