The increasing scientific plausibility of sending people to the surface of Mars has led to renewed interest from Hollywood in the Red Planet. 2015’s The Martian was lauded both for its science bona fides and entertainment value, which led to it being nominated for seven Oscars.
A film that won’t be joining The Martian on any awards lists is The Space Between Us, a laughable wannabe romance that's just one eye-rolling moment after another. And that’s a shame, because the premise of the film is actually quite intriguing: Gardner Elliott (Asa Butterfield) is the first human born on another planet, and he grows up disconnected from how it feels to be human, both physically and psychologically.
How the filmmakers, who include director Peter Chesholm and writer Allan Loeb, use that premise is a lesson in how not to make a film. Gardner develops a very long distance relationship with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson), and when the opportunity comes for him to return to Earth, he uses it not only to meet her but also to try and track down his father, whom he has never known.
All of this would be fine if the story connected all the dots. Instead, Chesholm and Loeb decide that narrative clarity is for suckers, taking big plot leaps in order to get the characters across the country. It’s not enough that a slight 16-year-old still getting used to Earth’s gravity can evade capture on multiple occasions. He also does so in increasingly improbable ways, such as him and Tulsa surviving an actual plane crash.
The two main thrusts of the story — romance and the attempt to reunite with Gardner’s father — also feel forced. Pretty much everybody has experienced first love, but the chemistry between Gardner and Tulsa is next to nothing. Likewise, Gardner’s quest to meet his dad comes off more as a manipulative plot device than something that’s truly important for the film.
Butterfield, who was so good in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Hugo, is never able to connect with the role of Gardner. The character is supposed to be emotionally and physically awkward, but Butterfield’s portrayal makes him even more graceless than necessary. Combined with the strangeness of the story as a whole, Gardner becomes someone with whom it’s very difficult to relate.
Making movies about going to or living on Mars will continue to be of interest, especially the closer the idea goes from science fiction to science fact. But films like The Space Between Us do little to expand the mind, trading in a good story for a second-rate teen romance.