‘The Space Between Us’ should give its audience some space
Director: Peter Chelsom
Writer: Allan Loeb
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman, and Carla Gugino
“The Space Between Us” – Long distance relationships are difficult. Sharing your emotions, feelings, wants, and dreams with someone primarily through text, Skype, phone calls, and photos over an extended period of time – even with an occasional weekend, in-person visit – can be a taxing and emotional drain on a couple. The only real relief in sight is the eventual day that the pair live and breathe in the same general space, or at least the same zip code.
Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and Gardner (Asa Butterfield) are not in a romantic relationship. They are pen pals, but Gardner wishes for more. His roadblock is the whole distance-thing.
About 140,000,000 miles of distance!
You see, sometime in the not-too-distant future, a NASA-based program called Genesis – led by Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) - embarks on Mars settlement program, and an astronaut gives birth to Gardner on our solar system’s fourth planet. Sixteen years later, the space between Gardner and Tulsa – who lives in Colorado – makes it problematic for a dinner/movie date on a casual Saturday evening. Fortunately, after some significant lobbying, Gardner hops aboard a spaceship heading to Earth, and he carries secret plans of romance with Tulsa.
Although space exploration flags the backdrop to “The Space Between Us”, the movie is less about science fiction, and more about a teenage romance, like a futuristic “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976). Gardner’s upbringing on a Martian environment renders his internal organs vulnerable to Earth’s environment, but with a sudden exposure to blue sky, green trees, American fast food, and a pretty girl, throw caution to his new planet’s wind, right?
After a while, one has to wonder if director Peter Chelsom and screenwriter Allan Loeb threw caution to the wind, because this interplanetary story – albeit with good intentions – feels sloppy, sophomoric and silly. These feelings begin to arise, because for starters, Chelsom devotes next-to-zero time in establishing the lead characters. Sure, we see Gardner’s bouts of cabin fever and complaints of loneliness, but they seemingly occur for just a few minutes before this lanky teen is whisked away to Earth. In Colorado, Tulsa is a troubled, foster care system tomboy who rides motorcycles, fends for herself and cops an attitude towards her schoolmates, like some out-of-body combo of Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley) from “The Bad News Bears” (1976).
Chelsom rushes this shaky relationship between a naïve boy and street-smart girl without an emotional connection for the audience and then sends the two on an inane road trip across the western states. Robertson and Butterfield are strong, young actors and admittedly do their best to portray this mismatched couple with Tulsa’s tough girl act and Gardner’s inexperienced weirdness. For example, when Gardner sees a horse for the first time or enjoys his fifth hamburger, their reactions are some of the film’s best moments. Unfortunately, their quality time plays under this clumsy journey with Nathaniel and an astronaut named Kendra (Carla Gugino) chasing them via corporate vans and helicopters.
While Nathaniel and Kendra fret like hysterical teens who were just told that Taylor Swift is giving up music, Tulsa and Gardner bond over a series of recycled script devices like a renegade plane ride and a shopping spree, as they also steal multiple cars to get from here to there. Not only do the sequences seem tired, but the film feels like Chelsom and Loeb jammed together puzzle pieces which do not completely fit. Many scenes lack simple common sense. For example, in the third act, none of the characters sport any astronaut or safety gear during an intense space shuttle ride.
In other instances, the filmmakers manufacture random fulcrums to move the narrative along. In one scene, Gardner needs to escape a NASA facility, so he releases the pressure from some air tanks – with some unknown function – as an obvious diversion. This fools everyone on the big screen but completely puzzles the theatre audience as to why the air tanks even cause a figurative smoke screen. At another point, the kids steal a BMW, but later, they sport a large blue truck. Now, admittedly, I may have missed this particular stolen car exchange, but I was probably sans my glasses and rubbing my temples for relief, which happened on several occasions during my two-hour experience. Admittedly, I think that a preteen audience might willingly ignore these miscues and just enjoy the adventure with its Disney Channel-like soundtrack, but for me, the pain ran deep.
Thankfully, pain is only temporary, and the emotional mark that this movie left will eventually fade. Well, rather than let my relationship with “The Space Between Us” slowly fade, I’ve had enough. I am breaking up with it and keeping my distance.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.