The Space Between Us: A God-Awful Small Affair, by David Bax
Peter Chelsom’s The Space Between Us gets off to a clumsy start. That’s not to imply that things improve much from there, but rather to say that the movie announces itself as a half-baked effort from the jump. The opening monologue from Gary Oldman’s NASA engineer Nathaniel Shepherd is a stern assessment of climate change (“We’re in trouble and it’s our fault”) as a prerequisite for establishing a new colony on Mars. That thematic foundation, though, is immediately jettisoned when the leader of the first expedition to the red planet, astronaut Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers en route that she is pregnant. It’s a surprise but that doesn’t quite explain why Shepherd and multiple other NASA folks insist that “she behaved irresponsibly” when they find out. This reaction and its undercurrent of shaming is in fact never explained; certainly her pregnancy is an undesirable complication for the mission but that’s no reason to treat her like a reckless teen. Magnanimously, though, Shepherd admits that the course of action is “her decision now, too,” as if it ever was anyone else’s. Again, though, Chelsom shifts gears abruptly when Sarah, shortly after arriving on Mars, dies during childbirth, having exhausted her usefulness to the narrative. The Space Between Us will go on to occasional moments of more rewarding distinction but most of the movie is marked by confounding, slapdash elements such as these.
After that extended prologue, The Space Between Us jumps ahead sixteen years. The Mars baby is now a teenager named Gardner (Asa Butterfield) who has never been to Earth and whose existence is a secret known only to NASA and the astronauts (the ethical problems with this concealment are never addressed head on but we’ll get to that later). Gardner does have an Internet connection, which he uses to chat with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a seventeen-year-old foster child who can’t wait to age out of the system and light out on her motorcycle. Gardner tells Tulsa he’s sick and confined to a Park Avenue penthouse but, when he finally gets the chance to come to Earth, he immediately sneaks away to meet her. Together, they hit the road in search of Gardner’s biological father.
For a story that offers the possibilities of both the science fiction and the road movie genres, it’s a shame how unambitious Chelsom’s visual approach is. Shots of starry skies and massive planets have all the originality of a screensaver. And if we never again have to go through the motions of the childbirth scene where the mother grits her teeth while someone yells, “Push!”, it will be too soon.
Things do improve a bit, however, once Gardner and Tulsa get on the highway. They trace a path from Denver to California’s central coast and the American Southwest always looks good on camera, especially when we’re invited to imagine seeing it through the eyes of a Martian (the landscape seems to briefly inspire Chelsom, who at one point stages a tongue-in-cheek homage to North by Northwest’s famous airplane sequence). It’s in these moments, when it adopts an outsider’s view of humanity, culture and the overwhelming beauty of the natural world, that The Space Between Us is at its best.
Pretty much the rest of the time, though, it’s at its worst. Every character beat and narrative development is rote, like a machine-generated story outline. Gardner and Tulsa never seem like more than friends until the movie decides they’ve spent enough time together that they’re in love now. Meanwhile, Shepherd has to start yelling at former astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino), who’s helping him search for Gardner, for no reason other than the screenwriting team once took a class that said conflict was important, or something like that. All of this is carried out via exceptionally lame dialogue (when Shepherd and Kendra momentarily think Gardner has died, they both proclaim, “Oh, no!”; later, when Shepherd has to take manners into his own hands, a featured extra earns his SAG card by shouting, “But it’s against every regulation!”) and all of it is backed up by Andrew Lockington’s syrupy score.
Chelsom and company are so focused on sticking to the blueprint from which they’re working that they don’t even seem to notice the intriguing dilemmas they’re raising and then abandoning by the side of the highway. As mentioned before, the insidious corporate cover-up that is Gardner’s very existence is given a soft sell at best; mostly it’s just ignored. And other than a glance in the direction of some unexamined trust issues, there’s no real explanation as to why Tulsa refuses to believe Gardner’s story at first; this is, after all, a near future in which everyone knows that there are people living on Mars. Finally, and almost hilariously, Gardner and Tulsa’s road trip is essentially a crime spree in which they are constantly stealing cars. Lest we dwell on that, though, Chelsom keeps the victims almost entirely offscreen. That’s the gist of The Space Between Us. It’s too lousy to even find itself interesting.