Directed by Peter Chelsom
Written by Allan Loeb
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Carla Gugino, Gary Oldman, and B.D. Wong
Runtime: 120 minutes
The Young Adult market (or more popularly YA) has certainly boomed over the last several years. The literary (and subsequent film) subgenre seems to have a morbid fascination with the worst that can happen. A large part of the more successful YA books and films are dystopias (The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, The Maze Runner series) yet even the non-dystopic stories are often centered on grave conditions (i.e. dying teenagers falling in love, as in The Fault in Our Stars). Now comes The Space Between Us, a fated love story not based on a bestselling novel that film critic Rob Trench said should have been called The Fault in Our Mars and he’s not far off.
The film is set in the not-too-distant future where Nathanial Shepherd (Gary Oldman), head of a private company, is sending the first manned mission to Mars. The commander of the mission, Susanne Elliot (Jenny Gabrielle), has embarked upon the mission while pregnant, quite unbeknownst to her until the morning sickness kicks in. This places Shepherd and his company in a quandary, because they don’t know if the baby will survive the trip and if it does, if it will survive being born on Mars. They decide not to call back the ship and keep the whole situation secret. Susanne goes into labor and gives birth to Gardner (Asa Butterfield) but dies in childbirth (for no real apparent reason, or at least none given other than she had a seizure). Sixteen years later, Gardner has been raised by Kendra (Carla Gugino) and routinely chats with Tulsa (Britt Robertson) in Denver (without any lag whatsoever, despite being about 225 million miles apart). Gardner wants to go to Earth to meet Tulsa and try and find his father, though no one appears to know who he is.
The original story, by Stewart Schill, Robert Barton Lewis and Allan Loeb, with the screenplay by Loeb (who was responsible for the screenplay for one of the worst movies of 2016: Collateral Beauty), seems sound enough and works fine for about 30-45 minutes before it falls apart. It’s a very interesting concept that is given more than standard treatment and forces a dire situation on something that doesn’t really need it. The pseudo-science they put behind the rationale that Gardener can’t survive on Earth sounds sketchy at best, though there is no way to prove it wrong, because such a situation has never occurred, so they are secure in just being able to surmise and make stuff up. Loeb also doesn’t seem to know how to create characters that have more than one or two notes. Gardner is the most developed character, though that feels more thanks to Butterfield than to Loeb. Everyone in the film is incredibly single-minded and only grow when and how the story needs them to, nothing more and nothing less. This limits the believability of the emotions displayed and makes a lot of the film ring hollow and false. Loeb also tries to work in a big secret, who Gardner’s father is, only to reveal it’s someone the audience likely guessed an hour before it’s revealed. It’s sad that such an interesting topic should be given such (sub)standard treatment, with Loeb reducing a genuinely fascinating subject to a love story/road movie with convention after convention piled on top of it until you can’t remember what was interesting about the story and why you should care about what’s happening on screen. Then, when you just can’t care anymore, Loeb ends the movie at least 4 times, each about how you expect and none of them particularly interesting.
Peter Chelsom’s direction doesn’t do the picture much good either. The Serendipity director (who also directed Hanna Montana: The Movie) is functional without much style or ingenuity. While that is not inherently bad, it’s not particularly good either. He seems more interested in directing the actors than the camera, which is also fine, but lends to a flat-looking picture that doesn’t give the feeling of awe that one should get when looking at a fully functional colony on another planet. What Chelsom does manage to do is get forced performances out of talented actors. Gugino has never sounded so stiff nor Oldman so bored. Robertson is frustratingly erratic going from guarded to tender and back again at the drop of a hat, depending on what that scene or even line requires.
The only actor that actually comes out okay is Butterfield. Though he’s never quite captured the performance he did in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, he’s a consistently interesting actor with the innate ability to bring out something special in even the most banal and underwritten characters (see Ender’s Game for an example). He infuses Gardner with a wonderful sincerity and curiosity that makes you feel sympathetic to him, even if you’re not very interested in where the movie is taking him. He does the best he can with Loeb’s words and Chelsom’s direction and despite a few less-than-stellar moments, he’s quite good here.
The Space Between Us will perhaps be best, however fleetingly, remembered as a film whose release date was delayed by two months, only to be dropped into what is notoriously the worst time of year for new movies, the early winter. Originally scheduled to open December 16th, 2016, it was pushed back to avoid having to compete with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (and, incidentally, Collateral Beauty, which thankfully did tank). Many, including myself, thought this a prudent move if they wanted this sci-fi story to do any business at all. Now, however, I’m forced to conclude that not wanting to open opposite a Star Wars movie was somewhat of a pretense, given how bad the picture ended up being. I think they had high hopes for the film, and even thought it could stand out against Star Wars, but then they saw it and decided they didn’t want to take a total bath on the project and moved the release. Dumping it here, in the winter doldrums where the only movies worth watching are the ones held over or re-released for awards season is right where The Space Between Us belongs, relegated as a schedule filler instead of something the studio believed in.