'The Space Between Us'
Never in a million light years did I imagine that John Carpenter’s cuddly romantic sci-fi romp ‘Starman’ would be responsible for not one but two homages within a 12-month span – first with Jeff Nichols’ brilliant ‘Midnight Special’ last summer, and now the softer, more emo and teen-focused ‘The Space Between Us’.
Written by Alan Loeb with all the subtlety that he brought to ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ and directed by Peter Chelsom with the relentless heartstring-pulling that he brought to ‘Serendipity’ and ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’, ‘The Space Between Us’ is a loud and manipulative movie designed to give kids the feels as aggressively as possible. It’s not particularly original, believable or exciting, but boy-oh-boy does it ever try to force audiences to cry. Unfortunately, they’re more likely to wince.
Gary Oldman plays Nathaniel Shepherd, a super-smart and super-famous scientist who made it his life’s goal to get humanity to Mars. He finally pulls off the impossible dream and sends astronauts out to colonize the red planet when disaster strikes. His lead astronaut accidentally got on the shuttle pregnant and it’s far too expensive/unsafe/too much of a PR disaster to bring her home. As a result, it’s decided that she’ll secretly give birth on Mars. Tragically, she dies in the process. NASA agrees to sweep this under the rug and raise the kid on Mars to avoid any suspicions. Because, you know… that’s likely.
Fast forward 16 or so years and the Mars baby, Gardner Elliot, is now all grown up and played by Asa Butterfield. He enjoys being raised by scientists (especially a motherly Carla Gugino), but longs to be on Earth, or at least to get to meet kids his own age. Since he’s been raised by scientists, he’s now a prodigy, smart enough that he’s managed to find a way to communicate with Earth via the internet in a manner so secretive that not even NASA notices. (Huh?) Every day, he chats with a troubled adopted teen named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and they quietly fall in love. She keeps asking him to visit and he keeps dodging the question.
Eventually, Gardner begs his foster mom to bring him back to Earth, and under Shepherd’s supervision, that happens. Unfortunately, it turns out that being raised in Mars’ atmosphere makes it difficult for Gardner’s weak body to survive on Earth. (In particular, his heart is too big… Awwww!). Shepherd wants to send him back, but Gardner refuses and runs straight into Tulsa’s arms. The kids then hit the road to find Gardner’s father while being chased by NASA.
Whew! That’s high concept stuff for what is ultimately a teenie-bopper romance. It’s also absolutely ludicrous. Don’t tell the filmmakers, though. They play it completely straight. The concept is so convoluted that much of the first hour of the movie is spent just setting up the ridiculous circumstances before the chase can begin.
The movie’s ace in the hole is Gary Oldman. That guy is one of the most talented actors of his or any generation. When he commits to spitting out the insane nonsense science or exposition, you almost believe it for a little bit. He also carries most of the emotion of the movie and genuinely feels it, enough so that you almost get tricked into buying the schmaltz.
Butterfield and Robertson are also one hell of a charming duo at the center. Butterfield has proved himself to be quite a strong actor since Martin Scorsese shoved him into ‘Hugo’ and he manages to turn an absolutely absurd contrivance into a sweet character worth caring about. Britt Robertson is also a movie-star-in-the-making. She has the looks, talent and charisma to fit the mold. She’s just had bad luck with projects (especially ‘Tomorrowland’, which is actually quite good and one day I hope to meet a single person who agrees). They have fantastic charm and chemistry together. Even though their dialogue is exclusively mushy nonsense and they’re stuck in a story too dumb to believe, it’s easy to fall for them. They make a cute couple. Too bad the movie doesn’t deserve them.
Given how completely insane and nauseatingly sentimental the film’s script is, it’s amazing that the filmmakers got such a big budget to deliver this schmaltz. Peter Chelsom directs it entiurely in grand beauty shots and bold colors. The visual effects are decent, and since the cast is far better than the movie deserves, there are even times when you might find yourself feeling connected to a big dumb movie that you know in your head and heart shouldn’t work. The leads are just strong enough and Chelsom keeps things moving fast enough that there’s not enough time to consider all the plot absurdities or dwell on ridiculous dialogue long enough to be annoyed. In fact, it almost works for a 45-minute stretch in the middle when Butterfield and Robertson charm it up like gangbusters.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before that spell breaks. The final twists in this stupid story aren’t just awful; they’re predictable from at least 30 minutes away. Any chance ‘The Space Between Us’ had at qualifying as an embarrassing guilty pleasure disappears by the time Gardner is told that his heart is too big, and the final act is filled with far too many eye-rolls to count.
The movie is every bit as dumb and manipulative as you might have guessed from the trailers. The fact that talented actors make it bearable for a while is in a way even more frustrating. If Oldman, Butterfield and Robinson can make this nonsense sing even briefly, just imagine what they could have done together with a half decent script. Maybe one day we’ll know. For now, don’t bother seeing them give this crap credibility it doesn’t deserve. It’s not worth the heartbreak. You might cry at the end of this movie, but not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.