Review: ‘The Space Between Us,’ the Story of a Boy Who Fell to Earth

With the disappearance of video stores, there is something heartening about the existence of “The Space Between Us,” a cheesy hunk of science fiction from Peter Chelsom that once would have drawn curious young eyes to VHS shelves. Set in the near future, it plays like a transmission from 1986, when a boy and a spaceship’s robot pilot could raise hell in “Flight of the Navigator,” and Steven Spielberg set the blockbuster template to emulate.

On a mission to colonize Mars, the lead astronaut (Janet Montgomery) learns she is pregnant. This news upsets Nathaniel Shepard, the wild-haired mogul responsible for the venture, who fears the consequences of subjecting a fetus to zero gravity. He is played by Gary Oldman, clearly way too enthusiastic about this gig.

The existence of the child, Gardner (Asa Butterfield), is classified, and he grows up on Mars. Gardner mourns the fact that few know he exists and ruefully watches the copy of “Wings of Desire” a German scientist left behind. This sullen teenager has (naturally) a robot friend and (somehow) a video-chat pal on Earth. Because the screenwriter is Allan Loeb (“Collateral Beauty”), she is called Tulsa (Britt Robertson).

Their inevitable meeting — a scientist mutters something about using carbon nanotubes to strengthen Gardner’s bone density — occasions an Earth road trip. Gardner must learn about human customs, convince his girlfriend that he’s not a weirdo and find his father before his space-addled heart gives out.

Committed to this preposterousness, the movie is consistently tougher to resist than it might seem.

Britt Robertson and Asa Butterfield in Peter Chelsom’s “The Space Between Us.” Credit STX Productions

'The Space Between Us': Film Review

A teenager who has spent his entire life on Mars finds love when he finally travels to Earth in Peter Chelsom's sci-fi/romance.
Going through adolescence is hard enough without having to do it on Mars. That’s the main takeaway of Peter Chelsom’s sci-fi romance aimed at teens who might prove more indulgent of its sentimental clichés than adults who have made such films as Gravity and The Martian runaway hits. Having had its release date pushed back to not directly compete with the recent Passengers, The Space Between Us is unlikely to capitalize from the distance.

Asa Butterfield (Hugo) plays the central role of 16-year-old Gardner, who has spent his entire life on Mars after his astronaut mother (Janet Montgomery) died giving birth during a multiyear mission on the Red Planet. (You would think that NASA would give pregnancy tests to its female astronauts, but apparently not.) Raised in near isolation, with his best friends being his surrogate mother Kendra (Carla Gugino) and Centaur, the sort of adorable robot endemic to sci-fi films, Gardner is not surprisingly frustrated with his situation. Meanwhile, his existence has been kept secret by NASA, although it seems hardly the sort of thing that could be kept under wraps indefinitely.

Gardner does have one friend on Earth: Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a Colorado high school student with whom he regularly video chats via computer (this, when getting a good Skype connection is problematic). When Tulsa expresses a desire to meet him, Gardner tells her that he lives in a Park Avenue penthouse and suffers from a rare disease that prevents him from being exposed to people.

When Gardner finally gets the chance to travel to Earth, he naturally makes a beeline for the beautiful young woman with whom he’s become smitten. The scenario provides screenwriter Allan Loeb the opportunity for plenty of predictable fish-out-of-water humor, with Gardner reacting in wild-eyed wonder to everything around him despite having presumably watched plenty of films and TV shows. Gardner’s favorite film, in fact, is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (which goes unnamed here despite the inclusion of several clips), since he can relate to the plight of its central character, an angel who falls in love with a human.

Although Tulsa at first reacts suspiciously to Gardner’s eccentricities, sparks eventually fly between them. When she agrees to help him find his biological father, the two teens embark on an unsanctioned road trip, with NASA in hot pursuit. The situation takes on particular urgency when it becomes apparent that Gardner, whose body is unused to Earth’s gravity, may suffer fatal consequences if he doesn’t return to Mars.

Combining its adventure and romantic plotlines in painfully hokey fashion, The Space Between Us (the title is a pun, get it?) is so ludicrous that only a cinematic stylist might have been able to pull it off. Director Peter Chelsom, whose career has declined precipitously in recent years (Hannah Montana: The Movie, anyone?), is not that filmmaker. Sluggishly paced and tonally wobbly, the pic, much like its teenage protagonist, suffers under its own weight.

The performers are not to be faulted. Butterfield conveys a touching soulfulness, and Robertson, although looking a bit mature to get away with portraying a teenager, makes for a funnily spunky heroine. As is so often the case, Gugino proves far better than her material, with the same being true for Gary Oldman, here playing an Elon Musk-style billionaire who personally funded the Mars mission. His character mainly comes across as an unintended argument against the privatization of the space program.

Production companies: Los Angeles Media Fund, STX Entertainment, Southpaw Entertainment
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Gary Oldman, Asa Butterfield, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson, BD Wong
Director: Peter Chelsom
Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
Producer: Richard Barton Lewis
Executive producers: Robbie Brenner, Kevin Halloran, Sasha Harari, Simon Horsman, Allan Loeb, Patrick Murray, Steven Pearl, Jeffrey Soros, Douglas Urbanski
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Costume designer: Christopher Lawrence
Composer Andrew Lockington
Casting: Jo Edna Boldin, Cathy Sandrich

Rated PG-13, 120 minutes


BETWEEN YOU AND ME, THE SPACE BETWEEN US IS A DUD

It’s been a rough few months for space romances. It was just a few weeks ago that Passengers failed to resonate with critics, and now The Space Between Us — which vacated its original December release date to make room for that picture — is also crash landing on the Tomatometer. Reviews describe this teen-focused drama, starring Asa Butterfield as a human boy raised on Mars whose journey to Earth sparks a potentially doomed romance, as overlong and overly melodramatic, with nowhere near enough narrative momentum to escape its storyline’s sudsy stumbles. (If you want to fall in love with a film that has sci-fi overtones this weekend, the acclaimed Arrival is now available on digital.)

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