Pity the poor YA author struggling to find fresher and more far-out ways to have doomed teenagers fall in love and then be kept apart as if the fate of the world hung in the balance. It was so much easier back in the days of Romeo and Juliet. You know, when NASA didn’t have to get involved. Directed by Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) from a screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty), The Space Between Us attempts to take young love to literally new heights before crash-landing into an earthbound hash of schmaltzy clichés and romantic absurdities.
Set in the near future (you can tell because laptops are see-through), the interstellar romance blasts off with a manned mission to Mars to establish a colony called “East Texas” which quickly develops a major complication when the lead astronaut (Janet Montgomery) turns out to be pregnant. (Where was all that rigorous screening they used in The Right Stuff?) Back at mission control, Gary Oldman spins his manic wheels trying to keep this inconvenient fact under wraps fearing bad publicity. Meanwhile, the space child is born, his heroic mother dies in labor, and through a quickly-dispatched montage, he grows up to become a brilliant, socially awkward teen named Gardner Elliot (Ender’s Game‘s Asa Butterfield). Gardner is a lanky outcast caught between two worlds (our blue marble and his red planet), not entirely belonging to either one. With no parents to raise him (the ageless Carla Gugino does her best as his NASA surrogate), all he can do is haze his sassy, C3PO-esque robot bestie and longingly watch Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, whose plot about angels falling to earth, like so many other of the movie’s metaphors, is thoroughly spelled out for the audience this film so obviously underestimates.
Because he was born on Mars, where gravity plays by different rules, Gardner is physically unfit to return to Earth. His bones are too fragile and his heart is too enlarged and too weak. Plus, his existence is classified. But then he finds something worth risking his life for when he starts a FaceTime friendship with a tough-but-vulnerable foster teen named Tulsa who lives in Colorado (Tomorrowland‘s Britt Robertson). Gardner spins a white lie that he lives in a Park Avenue penthouse and can’t meet her because he has a rare disease. But his attraction and his curiosity about Earth and hunger to find his real father is too strong to keep him in space.
With Gugino’s blessing, he travels 200 million miles for what has to be the universe’s longest-distance riff on The Sure Thing. When he arrives on Earth, he’s quarantined while NASA runs tests on him and he gets used to his new heaviness. Of course, he escapes and meets up with Tulsa, and the two go on a fish-out-of-water road trip to find his dad with Oldman and Gugino in pursuit. But really it’s just an excuse to get him to learn about our strange customs with wide-eyed naivete. Butterfield, who was so good as a child actor in 2011’s Hugo, is solid at selling the film’s stranger-in-a-strange-world bits. And Robertson has the charmingly feisty moxie of a younger, pre-trainwreck Lindsay Lohan. But they can’t work their way out of the laughable corner that Chelsom and Loeb have painted them into. At one point, Tulsa actually has to spell out that Gardner’s heart is too big for this world. Oh, brother. The emo soundtrack and eye-rolling third-act zero-gravity kissing scene don’t help matters any. C