Taking the term literally, “The Space Between Us” gives a new spin on the star-crossed lovers trope in this amiably cheesy and uneven young adult romance.
In the near future, charismatic Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) is sponsoring the first colonisation mission to Mars. A few weeks into the journey Sarah Elliot, the lead astronaut, discovers she is pregnant but Shepard decides to keep the pregnancy a secret and orders the mission to proceed. Shortly after landing, Elliot dies in childbirth leaving her son Gardner orphaned on the red planet. Shepard decides to keep events secret to avoid a PR disaster for his nascent colony but sixteen years later, a now-grown Gardner is determined to return to Earth to find his father.
The film is a little rushed and muddled in its first act as it rushes to dump the exposition and set-up on the audience and scramble to the ‘sixteen years later’ bit of the story where it finally slows down and starts to explore its characters, as well as introducing one of cinema’s crappiest ever robots.
Asa Butterfield makes for a likeable protagonist, intelligent but goofily naïve and struck by the wonder of the planet Earth after his arid and rust-hued upbringing. There’s a lightness of touch that helps to differentiate from his more serious and driven turn in “Ender’s Game” and he manages to keep things credible despite a script which requires the same character to be able to hack the electronic security lock of a NASA laboratory and yet be baffled how a bus’ automatic doors work.
The other half of the possibly doomed romance brings a welcome return to the screen of Britt Robertson (“Tomorrowland: A World Beyond“), whose character stops just shy of being a teen movie moody streetwise girl cliché thanks to her performance and chemistry with Butterfield. Her introduction may include a drunken, crop dusting foster father lifted directly from “Independence Day” but it does at least facilitate a cute nod to “North By North West” later on. The ‘adult’ cast aren’t quite so successful, with Oldman in particular guilty of hamming it up shamelessly, leaving Carla Gugino sort of trailing in his wake looking a little bewildered.
Unfortunately, the passable teen romance stuff is set against a bunch of subplots and world building which cry out for development and coherence. There’s a laziness to the screenwriting, leaving much out and assuming the audience will make the leaps in narrative assumption the story requires to work and forgive the many, many aspects which fall unexplored or underdeveloped by the wayside. A prime example is raison d’être for the Mars mission which cites climate change and environmental collapse as the imperative behind colonising Mars only for the subject to never be addressed again, particularly on the Earth of sixteen years later where everything seems absolutely peachy. But the most disturbing aspect of this otherwise passable teen sci-fi romance is the curiously patriarchal and pro-life subtext which is present through much of the story. The discovery of the pregnancy early in the space flight is discussed only in terms of the woman’s responsibility – and irresponsibility – for allowing the event. There are no choices discussed or even mooted beyond continuing the mission or turning back. There’s certainly no question that now the pregnancy has begun there’s an option which doesn’t include carrying it to term. The entire film is content with the implied sidelining of women as disposable baby incubators – note that both lead characters are either cared for by a father figure (however deadbeat they may be) or driven by a search for their father regardless of their current caregiver. Indeed, the only woman the film seems remotely prepared to suffer to live is Gugino’s safely childless spinster teacher/ guardian. It’s too much to be a coincidence and in the current charged political climate, such egregious and thoughtless narrative choices leave a bitter aftertaste to what is actually quite a sweet romance.