Rachel LaBonte ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Part teen romance, part family drama, and part sci-fi adventure, The Space Between Us tells the story of a boy who grew up on Mars and comes to Earth in search of answers about where he came from. It has cheesy dialogue and over-the-top performances abound, but the film still finds moments of genuine heart that keep it from being too ridiculous.
In the not-so-distant future, NASA develops a program that will allow people to live on Mars. Armed with the best technology the organization can offer and rousing support from the public, the first set of astronauts take off for the planet, but it is only a matter of time before complications arise: The lead astronaut, Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery), discovers she’s pregnant two months into the mission. In an attempt to maintain the public’s goodwill, program director Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) decides it would be best that news of the baby be kept a secret, and that Sarah decides what to do with it. She opts to have the baby as soon as she lands on Mars, and, while the baby is born nice and healthy, she dies soon after.
Sixteen years later, the baby grew up to be Gardner (Asa Butterfield), a curious and inventive teenager who has spent his whole life amongst the scientists at Mars’ East Texas settlement. His best friend is a robot, who was clearly created in the same vein as C-3PO, and his caretaker is Kendra (Carla Gugino), a scientist who claims she never wanted to be a mother but is clearly Gardner’s pseudo-mother.
Gardner’s one point of contact with Earth is Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a teenage girl with a tough exterior, soft interior, and a stereotypical tragic backstory. Through some means that are never explained, the two of them have connected over the Internet, messaging and video chatting each other whenever they get the opportunity. Gardner is clearly infatuated with Tulsa, but she seems a bit less keen on being with him, which makes their connection later on a bit questionable. As Gardner talks more with Tulsa and digs deeper into his past, Kendra realizes he needs to go to Earth. After getting it cleared with officials at NASA, Gardner finally achieves his dream of visiting his mother’s home planet.
Due to being born outside of Earth’s atmosphere, Gardner has several medical conditions that inhibit his ability to stay. When he realizes he might be sent back to Mars, he goes rogue and takes off to find Tulsa. The film indulges in some genuinely funny moments as he experiences Earth for the first time. One scene sees him befuddled at the concept of a bus door opening and closing without him saying, “Open,” like he does on Mars. Gravity is also a huge adjustment for him, and Butterfield does an admirable job conveying the weight of it.
Gardner’s main goal is to track down his father, aided by a picture he found of his mother with her arms around a man. He enlists Tulsa to help him, and because her home life is so terrible, she goes along with it despite spending a great deal of time yelling at and berating Gardner. All the while, Nathaniel and Kendra are trying to find Gardner before his medical conditions catch up with him. Their scenes are clearly supposed to have some kind of emotional depth, but they end up feeling cheesy and over-acted.
Gardner and Tulsa’s relationship is supposed to be the centerpiece, but the film is at its best when focusing on Gardner’s curiosity and wonderment regarding Earth. He keeps asking people, “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” which might feel too heavy-handed, but Butterfield plays it well, making it easy for the audience to support him in his adventure. Tulsa is a bit harder to sympathize with, as her backstory feels like a cliché and her attitude towards Gardner can be grating. Together, they have some truly heartwarming scenes, but, as a whole, the relationship is not as compelling as it should be.
As Nathaniel, Oldman spends approximately seventy-five percent of the film yelling about one thing or another. It’s as though he has one setting, and his motivations throughout the film are a jumbled bag. Gugino tries her best to be sincere, but her moments are mostly heavy-handed, like a solid portion of the film itself.
While the first two acts of the film alternate between cheese and sincerity, the final act jumps fully into melodrama territory, and the big twist is predictable and could be a bit icky to some. Director Peter Chelsom would have benefited from staying away from the heightened drama, as the quieter moments are definitely the best. It should be noted that Andrew Lockington’s score is brilliant and makes each moment soar. The soundtrack as a whole is a high point and will hopefully be appreciated by audiences as such.
Ultimately, The Space Between Us struggles to find a good balance between subtlety and being too on the nose, but could still be a win for its teenage target audience.
Overall Grade: B-
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