Many look up at the night sky and see boundless wonder waiting to be explored. In the vastness, there’s hope to find something greater than ourselves and what we know. For the few that have broken the bonds of gravity to soar into outer space, entering the void is a transcendent experience. It’s no surprise that so many science-fiction films play into this sensation to create tales to astonish, inspire, and capture the glory of space. Director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity/Hector and the Search for Happiness) and script writers Allan Loeb and Steward Schill succeed in capturing the awe of space travel, while simultaneously failing to provide a bolstered narrative to sustain the runtime in the sci-fi romantic teen drama The Space Between Us. There’s a lot that works with The Space Between Us to make it an enjoyable film, yet when aspects don’t quite coalesce, the impact intended by the film is significantly reduced.
In the year 2018, a team of astronauts are sent to Mars to establish the first human colony in a joint mission between NASA and privately-owned Genesis Space Technologies. When it’s discovered mid-flight that the captain, Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery), is pregnant, a decision is made to continue the trip, forcing her child to be the first human born on Mars. Sixteen years later, Gardner (Asa Butterfield) is granted a trip to Earth to learn about his mother’s home planet and connect with the one person who brings him peace.
Chelsom, in conjunction with cinematography Barry Peterson (Zoolander/Central Intelligence), create gorgeous landscapes that astonish the senses. Whether simulating space shuttle takeoff, the depths of endless space, or the wasteland of Mars, each scene completely captivates and titillates, drawing audiences deeper into this semi-futuristic story. Designing such backgrounds grounds each scene in reality, while also tapping into the wonder within us all regarding the mysteries of space travel. From the jump, the crew of the Magellan-61 are presented as heroes, with their rocket standing tall in the distance; signaling reverence and respect for the fictional crew. Later, once the Mars colony “East Texas” is established, we see scientists scuttling from place-to-place working on oxygenation, vegetation, and basic maintenance. When Gardner is granted permission to come to Earth, the planet is presented as a marvel to him; something terrans take for granted daily. Crafting such resonating visual backdrops also serves as a thematic connection throughout Space as a means of presenting perspective. This becomes increasingly significant as the story progresses from space odyssey to teen drama as Gardner longs to meet the Earth girl, Britt Robertson’s Tulsa, he’s been communicating with for some time. As the film shifts tonal gears toward teen drama, the presentation of space travel transitions to present Earth in a similar vein. For the audience, Mars and the vastness of space are the unknown, while Earth is the unknown for Gardner. Mirroring the same evocative cinematography that establishes the majesty for space exploration onto Earth highlights the running metaphor for the individual quest for human connection.
Top-down, The Space Between Us features a cast of actors that both elevate moments and grounded characters. Gary Oldman’s Nathaniel Shepherd is the first voice we hear as he introduces the catalyst for the story from the jump. As a boy, Nathan dreamed of living on Mars and it’s his company that creates this opportunity. Nathan views the journey of Magellan-61 and its crew to be a glorious moment, made clear in an opening speech that would’ve been reductive in any other actors’ hands. Oldman’s sincerity carries throughout Space without plunging into sentimentality. Butterfield’s awkward, somewhat disconnected delivery fits perfectly for Gardner, a teen raised by scientists on a distant planet. Here, whether by design or just the nature of Butterfield, Gardner is believably uncomfortable in his own skin no matter which planet he resides upon – a necessary component for the teen drama aspect of Space. Butterfield makes Gardner someone we root for, celebrate with, and cry for all in the pursuit of happiness. Rounding out the cast is Carla Gugino as Kendra Wyndham and Britt Robertson as Tulsa, two significant women in Gardner’s life. Wyndham is the maternal surrogate on Mars, while Tulsa is Gardner’s Earth-bound infatuation. Gugino doesn’t have much to work with as Wyndham beyond expositional concern, but her affectation communicates a believable deep affection and connection with Gardner. Robertson, however, has a more difficult task to complete with Tulsa and does it fairly well. Tulsa’s job in the film is to be the straight man to Gardner’s antics, while serving as a physical manifestation of the running theme throughout Space – that despite our cynical selves is a deep desire for hope. It’s a heavy lift for one character, but given her prior experience in similar roles in Tomorrowland and A Dog’s Purpose, Robertson manages pulls it off with ease.
Where Space falls apart is in the characterization of Gardner and the narrative portion of his trip on Earth. Multiple times throughout the film, it’s expressed that Gardner possesses and incredible mind and he’s given several occasions to demonstrate this fact. Combine this with the knowledge that Gardner’s Mars bedroom has access to an Internet-like service, it’s hard to believe that he’s never seen images of or heard about the creatures that roam Earth. So when Gardner doesn’t recognize a horse or a dog, the scene feels disingenuous and only as a means of playing for laughs. Similarly, by the time Gardner reaches Earth, we’ve seen him handle multiple forms of advanced tech, so when he struggles with getting on-and-off a bus, his life experience begins to seem questionable. Similarly, his inability to understand sarcasm or manage conversations while on Earth stands in hard contrast to his experience. Given that the filmmakers take great pains to establish Gardner’s life on Mars, we know it’s not a solitary existence as he’s surrounded by scientists. Though he may lack knowledge of societal norms for teenagers, he didn’t grow up separated from humanity. As these inconsistencies continue throughout Space, it becomes clearer and clearer that the shift in narrative from space odyssey to teen drama cripples an at-first engaging film.
The Space Between Us is a love letter to space travel. Each shot is beautifully composed and framed, the technology used by the characters is inspirational, and the narrative taps well into the internal desire to look beyond ourselves. Unfortunately, Space is a good film, but not a memorable one. On the one hand, Space emboldens the audience to look to the stars; yet, on the other, the narrative starts creatively before rapidly shifting to by-the-numbers predictability and Gardner’s characterization is vastly inconsistent. If the audience is looking for a teen drama, they’ll leave flying high among the stars; but, if they want something more, The Space Between Us will leave them stranded on Earth.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.