Although it was ostensibly written by adult men, The Space Between Us comes off like it was penned by a lonely teenage boy at space camp. Rather than sweeping us up into a good-natured young adult romance, Peter Chelsom’s film comes off as a constant parade of missed opportunities. What should have been a unique opportunity to capture the majesty of Earth from the viewpoint of one who has only glimpsed it from afar instead becomes a rote road trip movie featuring two leads who have zero chemistry. Far from embracing the richness of our planet, The Space Between Us is as desolate as Mars.
In 2018, scientist Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) sends a team of astronauts to Mars to inhabit the red planet for four years. On the journey there, it turns out that one of the astronauts is pregnant. She has the baby on Mars, but dies in childbirth. Nathaniel and the project’s other overseers decide to keep the child’s existence a secret to prevent a public outcry. Sixteen years later, and the child, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is restless and wants to come to Earth so he can find his father and also meet up with the cute girl he’s been talking to online, Tulsa (Britt Robertson), who doesn’t know he’s literally a Martian (she thinks he’s a bubble boy living in New York). After a surgical procedure that allows Gardner to walk on Earth, he escapes the medical facility and teams up with Tulsa find his father while Nathaniel and astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino) try to track down the teens so they can save Elliot from a condition that’s developed from his enlarged heart.
There’s so much potential in The Space Between Us and none of it is realized. The film’s hook is that the protagonist has only seen Earth from afar, and now he’s finally getting to experience it, and yet Chelsom never captures that wonder. If anything, the film always seems to be leaning heavily on the relationship between Gardner and Tulsa, which just makes it an ordinary story. Gardner may as well have been a bubble boy living in New York who goes on a road trip with a girl he has a crush on. His origins and his home planet become nothing more than window dressing, and the sci-fi angle is completely lost in favor of a rote love story.
Perhaps if we could invest a little more in Gardner and Tulsa’s relationship that could save the picture, but Butterfield and Robertson lack any spark. Butterfield gives a stilted, uninteresting performance, and Robertson is stuck playing “tough gal who has a softer side.” What should feel like a thrilling tale of first love instead comes off as cold and distant, as if screenwriter Allan Loeb couldn’t remember what it’s like to be a teenager falling in love so he just threw in some banter and then had Gardner marvel at seeing a horse for the first time.
There isn’t an ounce of emotional honesty or nuance in The Space Between Us, so the film is largely rendered inert. For a movie about a boy from Mars who comes to Earth to search for his father and ends up finding his first love, The Space Between Us is shockingly dull. While it’s easy to see the potential of the story and what could have been with better direction, better writing, and better acting, The Space Between Us ends up being a massive disappointment on every level.