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The Space Between Us

February 3, 2017
The Space Between Us

During the February dump season, it’s usually a safe bet that if it’s not an awards contender in the long tail of its national rollout, any new releases are probably not very good. But wait, The Space Between Us is a teen romance, and coming out just ahead of Valentine’s Day makes sense, doesn’t it? True enough, but the fact that this is the fifth scheduled release date for the movie undercuts that a bit. And indeed, the result is a love story that only indiscriminating teenagers will love.

The setup does offer some promise. Shortly after the first manned mission to Mars takes off, one of the astronauts discovers she’s pregnant. The Powers That Be decide that it’s somehow a public relations risk to admit that this happened at all, so when she dies in childbirth they hide the existence of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) from the rest of the world.

Raised by the rest of the crew, and particularly by Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), Gardner — what kind of name is “Gardner Elliot”? — is a sharp kid, but lonely with a robot as the closest thing he has to a friend. But he does use near-future-Skype over the near-future-internet to chat with a girl during her study hall period, with no explanation given to how they actually met. Tulsa (Britt Robertson) — no last name needed, I guess — is an orphan who wants to escape her neglectful foster home, so he senses a kindred spirit, but he still can’t tell her who he really is.

And it seems he never will. Nathaniel Shepherd, the now-reclusive CEO of the company that launched the mission (Gary Oldman), is adamant that Gardner — I swear it sounds like they got his name backwards — must stay on Mars. Since he was born and grew up there, his body is acclimated to the local conditions. “His heart can’t handle our gravity!” Shepherd insists, which conveniently also reads as an adult’s dismissal of teen romances as less valid than grown-up relationships. By pure coincidence, I’m sure.

But of course he does make it to Earth and then escapes the hospital area the company sticks him in to monitor his response to the new environment. He immediately goes looking for Tulsa, which brings us to the one actually interesting thing going on in the movie.

On his travels, this boy from Mars asks the people he meets what they like best about Earth. And since he’s traveling by bus with no preconceptions about American society, he meets a wide cross-section of them. A better movie than Collateral Beauty scribe Allan Loeb could turn this into a thoughtful meditation on the human condition. Director Peter Chelsom came closer to the mark in Hector and the Search for Happiness. But it’s hard to pull off without falling into mere glurge, and even at its best this movie is nowhere near up to the task.

And then that interlude is over. Gardner — seriously, who was responsible for this name? — meets Tulsa and the two of them go on the run. Their escape from Nathaniel’s search is interleaved with scenes of his shock and surprise at horses and other things that seem totally normal to the rest of us. But ultimately things end as they must, with the romantically-different boy a decade younger than his co-star taking the dissatisfied but otherwise featureless girl out of her horrible life and romantically spiriting her up to the wonderful and romantically unique life she never even thought to dream. There is also romance.

I’m sure this will sell like gangbusters to girls — and sure, some boys — too young to have any real concept of life or love yet. Nathaniel may be a caricature, but the idea that kids are dumb about relationships isn’t wrong. Still, if Loeb is good at anything, it’s giving gullible viewers exactly the treacle they want.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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