“The Space Between Us” is Science Fiction, Minus the Science

“The Space Between Us” is Science Fiction, Minus the Science

The Space Between Us is a science fiction movie that seems like it was written by people who learned their science from a screenwriting class and their screenwriting from Trump University. Every movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but The Space Between Us asks us to swallow such an elaborate series of unlikely developments and alternative facts, it’s sure to be a hit in the White House screening room, if nowhere else.

Here’s just the table ante for what you need to buy if you’re going to get into this movie: developments that unfold within the first 15 minutes. It’s the present, except that already we’re sending six astronauts (one woman and five men) to live in a Mars colony through a special NASA project that’s so closely guarded (despite the fact that it launches with a giant press conference), it allows all the following to remain unknown by anyone except the astronauts and a few project leaders on Earth.

Oops, mission leader Sarah (Janet Montgomery) “acted irresponsibly” (as it’s put multiple times) and got pregnant before her rocket launched. She has a healthy baby boy, but (very suddenly) dies in childbirth, leaving her son to be raised by Kendra (Carla Gugino), another astronaut who’s apparently sent to Mars after the baby’s birth and becomes a sort of surrogate mother. (God forbid any of the five men who delivered him, then watched their colleague expire in front of their eyes, demonstrate one iota of emotional investment. Just think how much better this movie would have been if it turned out to be a Three Men and a Baby reboot.)

Flash forward to the point when the baby, Gardner (Asa Butterfield) has grown to a boy of about 17, his existence still somehow utterly unknown to virtually everyone despite the fact that he has a magical broadband connection to Earth that allows him to Facetime, in real time, with a peer named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) who was born guess where. (In fact, it would take a message from Mars anywhere from three to twenty-two minutes to reach Earth, depending on the planets’ positions.) He wants, of course, to go to Earth — to find his father, whose identity he deduces from material he’s forced to steal from his mother’s old locker, and to hook up with Tulsa.

Besides the fact of his official non-existence, a further complication in Gardner’s would-be trip to Earth is that since he was raised on Mars, a transition to Earth’s gravity could fatally stress his organs. (While the precise nature of Gardner’s difficulty — a metaphorically enlarged heart — is probably bullshit, it’s true that he’d have severe troubles transitioning to Earth, where he’d hardly be able to even climb out of bed.)

Gardner nonetheless gets what he wants — he’s an only child, after all — and ultimately emerges among earthlings with a demeanor somewhere between David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. He’s smart about some things (including, improbably, how to confidently drive a car) while ignorant about others (including, also improbably given that he was essentially raised in a laboratory, how an emergency eye-washing station works).

Conveniently for their spontaneous romantic road trip, Tulsa is one of those confident, capable, and attractive teenage girls who’s ostracized by her peers purely for the purposes of the plot. She’s portrayed as a soulmate for Gardner because she’s also an orphan, being raised by an alcoholic (but absolutely adorable and not in the least bit abusive) foster father who makes his living — wait for it, and remember that this is the year 2036 — dusting crops in a biplane. If you think there’s not going to be a PerksofBeingaWallflower-style scene where Gardner hangs off the side of the cockpit, I have some seaside real estate on Mars to sell you.

Earth circa 2036 also turns out to be a place where everyone talks on either an iPhone 6 or a transparent hunk of lucite, where some cars are self-driving and others are holdovers from Cannonball Run, where music still comes from CD jukeboxes and car radios, and where Walmart’s logo is precisely the same as it is today. It’s a science-fiction entry in the ever-popular techno-anachronist teen genre (see also Palo AltoIt FollowsI Believe in Unicorns): movies made by adults who have difficulty understanding adolescent life in the age of the internet, so they just imagine that technology got stuck somewhere in the late 20th century.

The Space Between Us was written by Allan Loeb — whose credits include the reviled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — and directed by Peter Chelsom, who helmed Hannah Montana: The Movie. The one thing Chelsom gets right is the casting; Butterfield (HugoEnder’s Game) and Robertson (a survivor of the equally bad SF film Tomorrowland) have a nice chemistry together, despite the fact that she’s actually seven years older than him. Added bonus: we get to see Gary Oldman in yoga pants, often.

Will you enjoy The Space Between Us? Maybe, if you’re a slightly dim 12-year-old — or Sean Spicer.

Jay Gabler