This Boy’s Life on Mars: The Space Between Us

space between us

The Space Between Us
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Opens February 3

Gardner Elliott (Asa Butterfield) is a Martian, technically speaking. His mother was an astronaut, part of a private company’s attempt to start the first colony on Mars, and she decided to proceed with her mission despite her pregnancy, perhaps intending to make that Matt Damon guy look like a real chump for merely growing potatoes on the red planet. She makes it to the colony but dies in childbirth, casting a pall over the first Mars Baby, and Gardner grows up as sort of a secret, shameful science project, by insistence of project architect Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

It feels like a spoiler to reveal that Gardner’s mother dies in childbirth, even though it’s very much part of the movie’s set-up, not a plot twist. It feels this way because The Space Between Us is so saturated with exposition that none of it really registers as its main plot; it takes at least half the movie for the movie to settle down into the love story it seems to want to tell, and even then, it accelerates narrative incident with impatient, sometimes bewildering zeal. The premise is that once teenaged, Gardner yearns to visit Earth, specifically the United States, presumably unaware of the president and his broad classification of, and feelings about, aliens (or maybe this is a sci-fi utopia where he’s a distant memory). He wants to track down his father (who may not know he exists), plus he’s been chatting online with Tulsa (Britt Robertson). Tulsa at first seems to be catfishing him by pretending to be a high-school student when she is in fact a twenty-six-year-old woman, but then turns out to be just mid-twenties Robertson playing yet another character who is the same age, or in many cases younger than, her characters in The Longest Ride, Tomorrowland, and Mr. Church. Actors: They get older, but screenplays stay the same age. I’m making fun of Robertson a little, but in fairness to this casting decision, she does play Tulsa somewhere between a plucky, smartmouthed, thirteen-year-old orphan and a youngish pop singer trying to act, so I guess I bought that she was a teenager.

Eventually, Gardner gets to return to Earth, even though his physiology, which has developed in Martian gravity, is ill-suited for our atmosphere. The movie sets up a culture clash that I’m not sure it understands. That is, why does growing up among adult scientists make Gardner literal-minded and gawky and unaware of what horses are? Well, ok, maybe gawky makes sense, except that the movie goes out of its way to give him a surrogate mother in the form of the decidedly non-gawky Carla Gugino. The reason Butterfield’s mannerisms seem so randomly generated, I think, is that the movie supplies zero sense of his character’s actual childhood. His growing up on Mars happens in an instant, and is more conceit than emotional state.

While it doesn’t clearly convey Gardner’s mindset, The Space Between Us does keep overbusy to the point of tedium, constantly setting up obstacles, knocking ’em down, and setting up more. The filmmakers seem weirdly obsessed with the dramatic revealing of information, yet their treasuring of exposition leaves the screenplay addled about how to dole out even the most rudimentary fakeouts and reversals, especially once Gardner and Tulsa strike out on their own. At one point, Gardner is shown escaping a hospital, before the movie cuts back to doctors surprised by an empty hospital bed. Guys, it’s not hard: you show the empty hospital bed, then cut to Gardner out of the hospital; no need to walk the audience through a plot turn, then double back and walk them through it again. This jumbled approach extends all the way to a plot twist involving Oldman’s character so maddeningly easy to spot in the movie’s first half-hour that the movie’s epic delay in revealing it almost circles it back around to surprising (but no such luck).

Oldman is also burdened with the movie’s deeply strange method of delivering its earliest exposition: He has to monologue about the Mars mission in front of a black-tie crowd at a reception celebrating the impending launch. That’s the opening scene of a movie about traveling between Mars and Earth: Not on a shuttle, not on a faraway planet, not in a cockpit or at a training center, but, essentially, a gussied up board meeting. Oldman also overacts like crazy throughout the movie, but not fun-crazy like when he works for Luc Besson—just heavy on big physical gestures and intense pronouncements. Butterfield and Robertson are working broad, too, but then, they have to work to be heard. Even when they’re on their own, on the run from authorities and in search of Gardner’s dad, nearly every scene suffocates the characters with wistful folk-pop-rock. The movie also overwhelms them with incident, imagining a lot of theft, chasing, and temporarily faked deaths would be necessary for two teenagers, including one with no social security number or cell phone, to evade pursuit of a couple of scientists.

As Gardner and Tulsa tool around the American West, the sheer number of ways The Space Between Us could have been sweeter or stranger or funnier or more romantic or better sci-fi become innumerable. Director Peter Chelsom and co-screenwriter Allan Loeb are the kind of filmmakers whose faces should be attached to any number of grievances from nonwhite, nonmale directors having a rough go of it. These guys get to make movies all the time, even if they seemingly have little more than a vague idea and a wishlist of shitty MOR folk-pop-lite acts. In the wake of a movie like Arrival, this film’s form of sci-fi optimism feels downright sheltered.