What might have been an interesting teen cross between “The Martian” and “Starman” instead goes a sadly conventional route in “The Space Between Us,” making for a bland romance-on-the-run movie that might not actually be based on a YA novel, but sure feels as though it were—very much like a less grittier remake of the deservedly forgotten Anthony Michael Hall kiddie noir “Out of Bounds,” moved from the city to the desert and given a sci-fi twist.
About the sole virtue of the picture is a nice performance by Asa Butterfield, the lanky young British actor who has certainly grown up since he took the title role in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” and also starred recently in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” He plays Gardner Elliot, a boy born on Mars to the leader of the first expedition to colonize the Red Planet (Janet Montgomery), who had not known she was pregnant when she left earth and died while giving birth without revealing the father’s name.
At sixteen Gardner has grown up on Mars knowing only the other members of the small expedition, most notably Kendra (Carla Gugino), who has become a sort of surrogate mother to him, as well as a robot guardian. But becoming ever more rebellious, he longs to visit earth, and finally gets the opportunity. He has previously somehow made online contact with a New Mexico teen named Tulsa (Britt Robertson), telling her that he’s housebound on earth because of illness. After landing he contrives to escape his handlers, led by project administrator Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), and seek her out, asking her to join in his search for his father.
Their journey is complicated by the fact that Shepherd and his team, who have determined that the fact that Gardner had grown up on Mars affected the functioning of his internal organs, and have concluded that remaining in the earth’s atmosphere will lead to heart failure, are pursuing him. That leads to a series of close calls and breathless escapes, during which Gardner and Tulsa grow closer; and naturally it culminates in the revelation of who his father is—which won’t, unfortunately, come as much of a surprise to anybody.
Butterfield brings to Gardner a touch of the sense of quizzical wonder that Jeff Bridges embodied in John Carpenter’s “Starman,” as well as a bit of the older actor’s gangly, childlike charm. As written by Allan Loeb, the part is actually a pretty sketchy one, typical in that respect of the heroes and heroines of YA literature and movies, but he at least makes the fellow likable. The rest of the cast, on the other hand, is just serviceable—not just Robertson, whose Tulsa remains a pretty one-note character, but Oldman, from whom one might have expected better than this broad, frantic turn. Of course, the cast cannot have benefited much from the flaccid direction of Peter Chelsom, whose work over the past two decades has been mediocre at best, and who seems incapable of engendering much excitement even into the largest action sequences here—the ones involving cars and even an oh-so-convenient plane, which even more conveniently Tulsa can fly.
The movie also suffers from what was obviously a less than huge budget. Though some of the New Mexico locations are quite lovely (and are shot nicely by cinematographer Barry Peterson), the “scientific” interiors—both on earth and Mars—are pretty unimpressive, something for which production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli probably shouldn’t be held responsible. With more money at his disposal, he might have done better; as it is, technically the movie resembles more a telefilm made for a cable network catering to youngsters than a big-screen project.
“The Space Between Us” may not be as far from being a good teary teen romance as Mars is from earth, but the distance is still substantial. The premise had promise that unfortunately remains unrealized.