If it's possible for a planet to achieve celebrity status, Mars seems to have reached that tipping point of late. The Red Planet shared top billing in Matt Damon's 2014 crowd-pleaser "The Martian", the ESA's Mars Express mission is still going strong, and National Geographic Channel's "Mars" miniseries dramatizing the scientific and human impact of future colonizing endeavors debuted at the end of 2016 to positive reviews. Given all of this, "The Space Between Us" would seem poised to make the most of the current interstellar zeitgeist: with DNA borrowed from Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel, "Stranger In a Strange Land", "Space" tells the story of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield, "Ender's Game") who's born on Mars and and as a teenager makes his first foray to Earth.
"Space" touches on the classic storytelling trope of providing fresh views of our own world through the eyes of a stranger, but such moments, while compelling when they occur here, are overshadowed by a teen-angsty storyline seemingly yanked out of the Screenwriting 101 section on "(literally) starcrossed romance". There's also a McGuffin-y mission plotline that sets the young protagonist on the run and clumsily fritters away story momentum. In short, "The Space Between Us" presents an intriguing notion but undercuts it with inconsistent execution.
"Space" is heavy on setup, so the film's first ½ hour dramatizes the circumstances that lead to Gardner's unplanned birth on Mars shortly into a privately-funded colonizing venture. What we need to know: now 16, Gardner is smart (it's pointed out more than once that he was "raised by scientists"), a bit rebellious, and deeply curious about the Earth-born parents that he never knew. He's eager to make the interplanetary journey but the scientists (Gary Oldman, BD Wong) overseeing the colony project are at odds regarding his ability to survive Earth's atmosphere and gravity.
Gardner is motivated by the need to track down his unknown father, and also by the crush he's developed on Tulsa (Britt Robertson, "Tomorrowland"), a teenager on Earth who connects with him via remote chat. When he's finally given the green light to head to Earth he spends a few days moping in quarrantine, then busts out and starts a cross-country journey to connect with Tulsa and enlist her in the quest to find his dad.
Much of "Space" is insistently committed to hitting plot points and shuttling back and forth from the on the-run romance that's developing between eager, quirky Gardner and the tough-talking Tulsa, to their pursuit by reclusive scientist Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino ("Roadies") as the Mars-based researcher who's been a mother figure to Gardner since his infancy. There's a ticking clock in place, of course, as Gardner's Martian physiology is increasingly compromised by earthly forces.
"Space" is sweetly appealing in the moments when it slows down enough to focus on Gardner's discovery of his planet of origin and his first contact with people outside the tight-knit colony where he was raised. He eagerly asks strangers, "What's your favorite thing about Earth?", and if you're in a sentimental mood these moments will have you pondering the vast beauty and myriad experiences that our planet does indeed offer. When Gardner locates Tulsa and presents himself to her in the middle of her school day there's a short sequence where he guilelessly charms fellow students with his curiosity and open acceptance of every circumstance. The film makes the most here of Mr. Butterfield's youthful appeal and gentle comic timing. Equally effective is the moment when we watch the play of emotions on Gardner's face as, from the window of the spacecraft bound for Earth, he catches a glimpse of the planet for the first time.
But the inconsistencies and shortcuts do continue to crop up, and as Gardner and Tulsa's runaway romance blossoms they have a tendency to veer from surprisingly timebound teen-speak (It's doubtful that anyone will still be using the current crop of slang in 2034) to hoary sci-romance cliches ("You made me human.") An attempt to give weight to Gardner's feelings via his fascination with Wim Wenders' gorgeous, transcendent "Wings of Desire" feels manipulative. And without an appropriate buildup, the revelation of Gardner's mysterious parentage proves to be something of a "ho-hum".
Still, "The Space Between Us" looks lovely. If you had been born offplanet with no real knowledge of the earth, the film would serve as an enticing come-hither, peppered as it is with gorgeous, swooping landscape shots, arial views of verdant croplands like layered, multi-hued quilts, dialogue delivered from a stunning perch on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and dramatic scenes staged at a secluded California beachfront house that would move even the most jaded West Coast realtor to moments of pure aesthetic admiration. As seen through Gardner's eye, our home planet is a gorgeous miracle. If you don't mind a helping of drippy teen romance, "The Space Between Us" does provide a few reminders of how lucky we Earthlings really are.
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