Most stories of space travel deal with Earth-bound humans who long to visit other worlds, but the new science fiction romance film “The Space Between Us” tells a story from the reverse perspective.
Sixteen-year-old Gardner (Asa Butterfield), the first human born on Mars, desperately wants to live with the rest of his species on Earth. When he is finally granted his wish, he discovers what it means to be human – apparently it means to live without regrets and love without inhibitions. Despite the film’s novel approach to the well-trodden field of space films, “The Space Between Us” suffers from cliche plot elements, inconsistent characters and awkwardly forced moments of romance between the leads.
Gardner is born due to an astronaut’s unplanned pregnancy on Mars with an unknown individual and is raised by scientists after she dies in childbirth. His existence must be kept a secret from the world in order to ensure the continued funding of the scientific colony being established on the Red Planet. When he visits Earth, Gardner and his internet pen pal Tulsa (Britt Robertson) embark on a quest to find Gardner’s father while racing against his body’s failing organs (which are malformed due to the lower gravity in space and not fit to survive on Earth), inevitably finding romance along the way.
Watching the film requires considerable suspension of disbelief due to its flimsy premise of escaping from everyone and the surprising amount of coincidence necessary for the plot to progress. Much of the plot hinges upon no one even having a suspicion of the identity of Gardner’s mother’s romantic interest and how a 16-year-old who had never been to Earth is able to outwit and outmaneuver several trained scientists and security officials.
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Ridiculously, NASA keeps Gardner in quarantine when he arrives on Earth to prevent him from getting sick, yet allows people to visit him without disinfecting or wearing sterile suits. Small, logical lapses make it seem like the filmmakers didn’t stop to consider the fine details.
Other plot points are briefly introduced and then completely ignored. When Gardner’s impending heart failure is revealed, a donor heart is supposedly available for transplant, yet the spare heart is never again mentioned, nor is any other specific plan to help Gardner.
Not satisfied with being a space adventure, “The Space Between Us” tries to cram a love story into its already rushed story. The romance between Gardner and Tulsa is predictably cliche and often uncomfortable; the lines they feed each other while flirting and driving, although occasionally clever, also come off as scripted and stiff. Before their first kiss, Gardner says, “I don’t know how,” to which his lover responds, “You will.”
The film contains several uncomfortable scenes of the two teens physically expressing their desire for each other, ranging from kissing, Gardner running his hand up Tulsa’s inner thigh while he drives and of the two lying naked beneath two sleeping bags before presumably sleeping together. The film’s preoccupation with their romance is both unnecessary and awkward, cringeworthy at its best and unintentionally comical at its worst. Likely added to appeal to the younger fans of teen romance, the excessive emphasis on the romance subplot detracts from the supposed urgency of Gardner’s failing health.
The characters seem imperfectly developed and tend to flip flop between their convictions. On multiple occasions, different scientists arbitrarily alternate between wanting to keep Gardner a secret on Mars and wanting him to come to Earth – between doing what is best for the company and what is best for the boy.
Yet even the consistent characters present issues for the film, providing melodramatic and unconvincing performances. Robertson’s portrayal of Tulsa is likable yet forced, as if it is her life goal to let you know she is righteously angsty. She is often understandably frustrated for being a repeatedly adopted orphan, only for the support checks in the mail, and her youthful angst and dreams of a better life are relatable.
However, her angst comes across as flat and hardly convincing, exclusively portrayed through over-the-top cynicism and comments about how she hates everyone. The whole point of Tulsa’s character is that her “chip on the shoulder” attitude is supposed to hide how sensitive and loving she really is. However, Robertson could have done a better job masking the tenderness in her character.
The film’s only saving graces are its stunning visuals and Butterfield’s performance as Gardner.
“The Space Between Us” revels in its beauty, granting the audience gorgeous shots of space and breathtaking images of our home planet. Launch sequences at the beginning of the film are a visual treat, showing the rocket’s tremendous power and majestic ascent as it transitions from the vibrant green of Earth to the expansive blackness of space.
Butterfield shines as Gardner and breathes a youthful joy into the character. The best parts of the film are the little moments when Gardner reveals how unaccustomed to Earth he is through his childlike naivete, like when he gets scared the first time he sees a horse or when he tries to imitate a 1960s courtship video. The joy and awkwardness Gardner expresses feel authentic, especially in contrast with Tulsa’s faux angst. His constant question “What’s your favorite thing about Earth?” really emphasizes how much humans take this planet for granted.
“The Space Between Us” is a film with a lot of promise and little substance. Its stunning planetary visuals and Butterfield’s heartwarming performance are prevented from truly soaring, grounded by inconsistent writing and tasteless attempts at romance.