Directed by Peter Chelsom (2017)
by Melissa Strong
What is your favorite thing about Earth? This is not a question most of us consider, and it may prove as difficult for you to answer as it does for the Earth dwellers in The Space Between Us. Gardner Elliott wants to know, because he was born on Mars in the near future and has spent his entire 16 years there. Gardner is charmingly played by Asa Butterfield, but The Space Between Us suffers from insufficient development of plot and character, compounded by generic schizophrenia -- does it want to be a sci-fi movie? A teen romance? A kid’s search for the parent he never knew, which results in finding himself? A dangerously ill character’s life-affirming road trip, with car chases and explosions for good measure?
The Space Between Us tries unsuccessfully to be all those things at the same time. Plus, it’s unoriginal. Gardner, wide-open and sincere, kindles romance and runs from bad guys with jaded Tulsa, an Earth girl he meets online, features which smack of a superior film: Starman (1984), with Jeff Bridges as the alien who learns about human life and love from a widow played by Karen Allen.
Christy Lemire beat me to the punch in making the connection, but her estimation of The Space Between Us as “a Muppet Babies version of Starman” seems a bit drastic. Instead, The Space Between Us strikes me as a millennial version of Starman, a movie for the Fault in Our Stars set with none of the fatalism of 80s visions of the future/contact with the intergalactic other.
Butterfield is plausible as the boy from Mars, but Britt Robertson often appears at least a decade too old. And it’s hard to buy Tulsa as a tough, street-smart foster kid: her blond highlights are too perfect, her high school has no metal detectors, and she has a firm command of literary devices. Tulsa does not ring true -- indeed, none of the characters are rendered adequately. Carla Gugino gets little to do as Kendra, the astronaut tasked with babysitting Gardner. And Gary Oldman, as Nathaniel Shepherd, suggests that the man who bankrolled the human colony on Mars is morally conflicted and emotionally tortured, but it’s hard to see much evidence of that. Oldman’s stringy hair and unplaceable accent only distract from his efforts.
Worse, The Space Between Us participates in the widespread epidemic of gender and race tokenism. It dangles out seeming novelties in a sea of movies depicting largely white, male experiences, only to snatch them away and replace them with largely white, male experiences. Ooh, a female astronaut! Wait, she’s an attractive white woman and the only woman on the team. Wow, astronauts of different races and ethnicities! Oh no, they only appear in one scene, and just one of them gets to utter a single line. And hey, the story’s really about Gardner, a white boy. This kind of superficial “look how diverse we are!” crap has got to go. I’m looking at you, Rogue One.
The Space Between Us also treats unplanned pregnancy with sickening blame and shame. Gardner is the child of Sarah Elliott, the lead astronaut on the mission to Mars. Sarah is described repeatedly as having “behaved irresponsibly” in becoming pregnant just before blasting off, as if she acted willfully and on her own: last time I checked, it takes two to tango. Sarah is not only castigated by other (male) characters -- including, ironically, the dude who knocked her up -- she also is killed off. Sarah’s death by childbirth signifies punishment for her unspeakable crime.
The screenplay was written by a couple of men and directed by Peter Chelsom, who brought us that fine cinematic opus Hannah Montana: The Movie. Coincidence?
Overlooking these faults, The Space Between Us is a reasonably entertaining film. Its rosy vision of the future, one full of possibility and clean air, offers comfort in these troubled times. It is reassuring to see a future that looks almost exactly like the present, if not a little better: Greyhound and fast food are still around, with better space travel and cooler computers. Mars people are just like Earth people. Starman doesn’t have to go away forever this time. The Space Between Us is a movie to be enjoyed by viewers who haven’t seen or don’t remember Starman, and those who see movies as entertainment rather than art, and who subsequently expect less than I do.