Essentially reimagining “Starman” as a tepid YA weepie, “The Space Between Us” adds the one thing that’s been missing from melodramatic teen dramas like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “If I Stay”: Mars. Of course! The Red Planet. What took them so long? It’s such a perfectly natural setting for a genre that has wasted millions upon millions of dollars searching for signs of life. Alas, there are none to be found in this otherwise guileless and good-natured sci-fi love story.
Inexplicably not based on a book — but rather on an original idea by “Collateral Beauty” screenwriter Allan Loeb — “The Space Between Us” begins in the near future, as visionary scientist Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman, so characteristically hard to recognize that he’s easy to recognize) bids farewell to the first colonists of Mars, a team of astronauts who will establish and live in a dusty little outpost called “East Texas.” But there’s a hitch, a hitch that Shepherd and his NASA pals don’t learn until it’s too late: The lead astronaut is pregnant (the father is unknown). She doesn’t want to abort the fetus, and Shepherd doesn’t want to abort the mission, so the decision is made that she’ll have the child in secret; when she dies during childbirth, the secret becomes that much easier to keep.
And so Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) grows up an average of 225 million kilometers away from the nearest kid, raised only by scientist Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) and a video file of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.” A dull and distant kid who likes to think of himself as one of the angels who populate Wenders’ film — invisibly looking upon the world from on high and willing to trade the heavens for love — Gardner is told that he can never move to Earth because the pressure of the planet’s atmosphere would kill someone who’s been raised in low gravity (in real life, scientists don’t have the data required to know if that’s true). So he pines away from East Texas, regularly video messaging with a brash Midwestern high schooler named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) instead of using the breadth of the internet to answer any of his questions about life in her world.
That would just be way too easy. Acknowledging that today’s kids pretty much just live online anyway would be a fatal admission for a trite fish-out-of-water story that mines all of its limited humor (and even more limited pathos) from the social awkwardness of its alien hero. So yeah, when Gardner finally gets a chance to visit Earth for his sixteenth birthday — and promptly escapes his NASA enclosure so he can go visit Tulsa, find his dad, and incite the “Midnight Special”-esque chase that ensues — he doesn’t understand sarcasm and he almost has a nervous breakdown at the sight of a horse.
In theory, Gardner’s naive sincerity should make him the ideal foil for the prickly Tulsa, a foster kid who’s managed to remain friendless despite the fact that she’s a beautiful blonde badass who rides a motorcycle and knows how to hot-wire a biplane. She’ll teach him how to be human, and he’ll teach her how to enjoy it.
In practice, however, the film is undone by the wobbly dynamic between its romantic leads. Butterfield, whose bright eyes and blank expression made him a perfect pint-sized conduit for the awe generated in Scorsese’s “Hugo,” is once again flattened by the demands of a more adult role. In my review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” I wrote that Butterfield’s performance “makes makes everything else feel more ordinary by association,” and that’s true here as well, his woodenness undercutting a movie about learning to appreciate the natural wonders of life on Earth. Gardner’s heart may literally be too big to handle our world, but his range of emotion is too small for that to matter.
It doesn’t help that Robertson — a talented actress who needs to break away from the brattiness that defined her roles in “Tomorrowland” and “Mr. Church” as much as it does here — is seven years older than her co-star, and feels it. It’s not an aesthetic thing (though Butterfield’s pronounced height advantage clashes with his character’s childlike demeanor), it’s just that Tulsa seems less like Gardner’s girlfriend than she does his babysitter. Their cheesy patter isn’t nearly enough to bridge the space between them, and so the movie fills the gap with a series of booming pop songs in a limp attempt to glaze the story with all of the big teen emotions that should have been written into the script.
To his credit, director Peter Chelsom (a veteran studio hand responsible for projects that range from “Serendipity” to “Hannah Montana: The Movie”) graces the film with an old-fashioned patience and a genuine sense of splendor. Working with a budget that allows for space imagery on par with anything in “The Martian,” Chelsom buys himself plenty of time to flesh out his unique teen hero and humanize the adult characters who wind up chasing him across the United States. Gugino — never less than grounded — may be wasted on the stock role of a surrogate mother, but Oldman pops in his part as an ex-scientist whose guilt and responsibility for Gardner’s circumstances might indicate a deeper concern.
“The Space Between Us” eventually becomes just another movie about a manhunt, but it’s refreshing that the pesky government agents in this one seem to genuinely care about their alien fugitive. If only we could understand what makes Gardner special, and not just what makes him different. If only the film around him cared a little less about gravity, and a little bit more about weight.
“The Space Between Us” hits theaters on Friday, February 3.