It’s amazing The Space Between Us is not based on a young adult novel. The new sci-fi drama checks all the boxes for one, but it also ignores the core of what makes young adult stories so great — sometimes, the universe’s toughest questions can only be answered by the young, idealistic protagonists that populate such stories. The Space Between Us is surface-level in comparison.
Written by Allen Loeb (Collateral Beauty, which explains some things, but not everything) and directed by Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Movie, Serendipity), the film tells the story of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first person born on Mars, as he travels to Earth for the first time to find his father and experience life on a different planet. He’s aided by the street smart Tulsa (Brit Robertson) as the two search for some larger meaning to their life.
The Space Between Us attempts to celebrate the plight of humanity as seen through the eyes of an outsider. An outsider who, if it hadn’t been for some stroke of luck and the egotism of another man, was secreted away on another planet away from the rest of his people. Gardner’s worldview is limited, but it’s that limitation that could have lent to a profound exploration of what it means to be human. The tagline for the film — “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” — is Gardner’s go-to question for those he meets on Earth. By the end of the film, Gardner ends up answering his own question, but the answer has little to do with Earth itself but rather a relationship with a girl he’s really only just met. In short, the film misses the bigger picture.
The film is set sometime in the near future. Technology is far more advanced than our current path, and there are people living on Mars. Humanity has, against all odds, made it out to the stars. It doesn’t seem as if anyone cares, though. In trying to tell a very human story, Loeb and Chelsom miss the very thing about what makes humanity great. The ability to dream far beyond our reaches, and still somehow achieve them. Gardner and Tulsa’s love story never really gets at the heart of that idea, but they are still the center of attention. The Space Between Us ignores the triumph of humanity, which is odd, considering that’s what they were going for anyway.
What’s even more odd is Gardner himself. Quirky and socially awkward (because he’s raised by scientists, and those guys can be a gosh darn hoot!) Gardner longs for companionship that isn’t robotic or a stand-in mom. He spends the entirety of the movie romanticizing Earth. The water, the people, the films, the culture, all the things that represent a life he missed out on because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s understandable — who hasn’t, at some point in their life, yearned for something more beyond where they come from? It’s one of those universal truths stories are supposed to explore. Instead, The Space Between Us kind of tells it’s all for nothing. Because of some medical reasons, Gardner can’t stay on Earth and must return to Mars lest he die. The very last line is Gardner saying “It’s good to be home.” This line, in context with the rest of the film, doesn’t make any coherent sense with Gardner’s previous desires to be on Earth. In fact, it seems Gardner holds a deep hatred for Mars, though those reasons never come to light. For him to suddenly to look at Mars as a place of reverence feels grossly misleading. What is this film trying to say exactly? That you’ll always end up where you started? Yeah, this one’s for the dreamers alright.
If there was one decent thing about this film, it’s this realization: Asa Butterfield needs better roles. After this film and last fall’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, another relative flop, I’m now more convinced if Butterfield just got the right movie, we’d be in for a treat. Despite Gardner’s weird ambitions, Butterfield is charming and funny and sincere. Even when he was spouting off some sentimental monologue, Butterfield managed to pull it off with coming across as extremely sappy. Robertson too was decent, though their chemistry was at times questionable. But even seasoned actor Gary Oldman couldn’t quite shoulder this misguided movie. As the head of the NASA mission that sends the first group of people to live on Mars, Oldman’s character Nathaniel Shepherd is all over the place. Most of what he does and the decisions he makes are kept secret throughout the film, leaving his intentions difficult to understand. When they finally do come to light, it’s a little too late.
The Space Between Us certainly had potential. However, it fails to reach the same lengths its very characters already had.