Manages to at least partially eclipse its many tropes.
Mars is getting its day in the sun, a flurry of recent exploration missions by NASA only heightening the appeal of novels, films and a quasi-documentary TV mini-series that all attempt to peer into the not-too-distant future and predict what human colonization of the Red Planet might entail. It was only a matter of time before star-crossed lovers got thrown into the mix. A cynical assessment of The Space Between Us would liken it to The Martian meets The Fault in Our Stars, but Peter Chelsom’s latest film does contain enough earnestness to earn its own identity, even when it hits so many familiar notes.
The film’s central conceit is woefully underexplored but remains mildly intriguing nonetheless. After the unexpected pregnancy and subsequent death of its lead astronaut (Janet Montgomery) imperils the first Mars colonization effort, the mission’s earthbound head honcho, Nathaniel (Gary Oldman), decides its best to keep the first child born on another planet a secret from the public. Skip ahead 16 years, and Gardner (Asa Butterfield) thinks his home life is as lame as the average teenager, only he has the goods to back it up. Raised by scientists within a protective bubble, he’s itching to interact with people his own age, his only outlet in that regard is a troubled high school girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) with whom he interacts through online video chat. Eventually his primary astronaut guardian, Kendra (Carla Gugino), convinces NASA that it’s time for Gardner to visit Earth, and the wheels are in motion for a fish-out-of-water interplanetary romance.
What’s perplexing about this film is the decision to incorporate so much preamble. We see Nathaniel give an elaborate speech about the impending mission at a black-tie soirée, the birth and death in the delivery room and all the handwringing that goes on at ground control about what to do with the baby. A cleaner start would’ve simply been Gardner messing around in his controlled Mars habitat, which would’ve allowed for a greater sense of his otherworldly claustrophobia. Instead, he’s zipping down to Earth before we spend much time with him on Mars.
The most enjoyable sections of the film occur during its second act, when Gardner easily escapes NASA—which must continue to quarantine him due to the fact his internal organs likely can’t handle Earth’s gravity and atmosphere—and meets up with Tulsa. Despite the saccharine budding romance between the two, Gardner and Tulsa’s courtship is relatively well-handled. A foster kid who can’t find anyone to trust, she’s irascible enough to contrast well with Gardner’s euphoric embrace of everything he sees. Butterfield and Robertson present a natural chemistry (despite the latter playing a high-schooler at age 26) and turn in compelling performances, which makes up for Oldman’s miscasting and Gugino’s formulaic surrogate-mother role.
The Space Between Us never approaches believability. Gardner and Tulsa routinely escape with ease and are apparently pursued by no one other than Nathaniel and Kendra at every turn. Little time is spent getting into the nitty-gritty of space travel or extraterrestrial habitation, despite the film spending too much of its runtime adorning itself in trappings best left to The Martian or Interstellar. There are a few genuine laughs when Gardner encounters commonplace scenarios for the first time (especially his reaction to seeing someone riding a horse), but even that aspect is underdeveloped and too often limited to him walking a little funny due to Earth’s gravity or bluntly saying whatever’s on his mind without regard to social etiquette. Everything is too tidy and too easy. Even so, carried by the likeability of its two leads and its spirited approach to a flawed story, the film manages to at least partially eclipse its many tropes.