Part soul-searching drama, part whimsical road movie, part unlikely romance, and part sci-fi comedy, The Space Between Us has a high-concept premise and low-wattage creative energy in executing it. The original screenplay (which nevertheless evinces the feel of a YA novel) proposes the first human born on Mars and the wackiness that ensues when he sets foot on planet Earth to find his father.
The film’s greatest asset, then, is star Asa Butterfield. With his leading roles in Ender’s Game, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and now The Space Between Us, the teenage Butterfield has cornered the market on lanky weirdos with a soulful thoughtfulness and angel eyes. The thinking girl’s (and boy’s) sex symbol, Butterfield doesn’t have amped-up muscles, but he does have sensitivity and magnetism, qualities that occasionally transcend the schmaltz Allan Loeb’s screenplay requires the actor to try to sell.
In the near future, a Richard Branson type (Gary Oldman’s Nathaniel Shepherd) sends six astronauts to be “the first six citizens of Mars…living examples of courage without limits” in an exploratory bid to provide humanity a new home to follow our wasted Earth. The establishment of East Texas, Mars will lay the groundwork for more human colonization of Mars, “a planet ripe and ready for life.” One little snag: the lead astronaut discovers she’s pregnant, and after an unprecedented zero-gravity gestation, she gives birth to the first human Martian, Gardner Elliot.
That name could well be a loose allusion to the character of “Chauncey Gardiner” in Being There, since Allan Loeb’s screenplay works hard to establish Gardner as a naif with sorely limited understanding of human life and even less awareness of Earth society (Loeb stacks the deck by having Gardner inexplicably learn dating manners from a 1950s educational short). In order to tee up the film’s fish-out-of-water comedy, the astronauts (including Carla Gugino’s Kendra Wyndham) teach Gardner next to nothing of practical use for human life.
Which is silly, but the film trades the highly unlikely plot point for goofy humor once Gardner returns to planet Earth and goes on the run, Escape from Witch Mountain-style, to seek out his father (mom died in childbirth). This way, Butterfield can comically wig out when he sees a horse, and so on. Gardner rousts his online chat friend Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a sympathetic orphan, to be his guide to planet Earth. Meanwhile, Shepherd and Wyndham attempt to track down their Martian, heretofore kept a secret from humanity.
Despite the multiple genres, The Space Between Us feels thin in its plot, and corny in the telling, with little of thematic import to say except vague demonstrations of courage and the Thanksgiving-y reflection “What’s your favorite thing about Earth?” Loeb and director Peter Chelsom (Hector and the Search for Happiness) can perhaps be commended for eschewing yet another genre (action), but then again, the budget probably didn’t allow for any more excitement than Butterfield and Robertson making out.