It's a time for colonizing Mars, apparently, but at least in the case of Asa Butterfield's character in The Space Between Us, he gets more than potatoes to obsess over. Sorry, Matt Damon. On the surface the film looks like your typical YA melodrama with a spacey slant, and penned by Allan Loeb, who recently wrote the wild misfire Collateral Beauty, there is much teen angst to muddle through. However, thanks in big part to earnest performances by his cast and some beautiful cinematography, it overcomes much of Loeb's clumsy storytelling.
Butterfield, who starred in Ender's Game a few years ago, plays Gardner Eliot, the first human child born on Mars. How the heck did that happen? Because astronauts be horny. When NASA and Elon Musk-esque CEO Nathaniel Shepherd send a team of explorers to populate Mars, a couple of them go off for some sexy times and nine months later there was a little kiddo. Because they feared a public backlash about sending a pregnant woman into space, they just kept the whole thing secret. For sixteen years. During that time Gardner grew up on the red planet taken care of by his guardian, Kendra (Carla Gugino), who is really more of mother since his actual one died in childbirth, and a team of scientists who monitor him closely. Well...not so closely they notice he's been chatting online regularly with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a tough (meaning lonely and cynical) foster kid from Colorado.
When the chance arrives for Gardner to go to Earth for the first time he takes full advantage. Breaking free from quarantine, where they were making sure he could withstand our atmosphere, Gardner does what any red-blooded American boy would do and that's go to find Tulsa. Eventually he does in an awkward-but-charming meet cute that kicks off a cross-country adventure to find his birth father.
You won't be surprised to learn that Tulsa and Gardner begin falling in love along the way. First love is always weird but, but Gardner is basically an alien from outer space. He doesn't get how to court a woman and probably doesn't even know what a word like "court" means. Everything he knows he gets from TV which leads to some messed up, if endearing, attempts at chivalry. Director Peter Chelsom, who took Simon Pegg on global journey in Hector and the Search for Happiness, doesn't try to break the mold in Gardner and Tulsa's courtship. Instead he and cinematographer Barry Peterson capture the beauty in all of Gardner's new experiences, in particular the thousands of shades of color that make up our planet.
The relationship never really comes to a boil, though, partly because of some terrible dialogue (“No matter how much I want Earth, Earth doesn’t want me,” said no guy that ever hopes to get laid) and also because Butterfield still looks like a child next to Robertson. Yes, she has made a career out of playing way below her age but here it's a big distraction. She's a very good young actress but I'd like to see her take on something more geared towards adults, and no that Nicolas Sparks movie she did doesn't count. Loeb's script bluntly manhandles the impact a missing parent can have on a kid: Gardner's without parents, Tulsa's without parents who care abut her, Kendra's significant other left her because she can't conceive...oh, and there's that mystery of Gardner's actual father. The problem is that it's really no mystery at all. Watch for five minutes and you'll know who he is.
There's some pretty good tension that ratchets up later as a health crisis intercedes, turning this into a combination of Starman and The Fault In Our Stars. Not everything about The Space Between Us Works, but it does a good job of showing how an outsider like Gardner can find beauty in the things we take for granted. Even if it doesn't totally take off, I think most will find that it ends up in just the right orbit.
Rating: 3 out of 5