Science fiction is often used as a mirror to reflect, not the alien, but the self: “We are the Martians” was the message of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and in both Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Clarke’s Imperial Earth travellers who had never visited their ancestral home planet visited from, respectively, Mars and Titan, while in this teenage romantic drama it is Gardner Elliot who travels The Space Between Us to see an alien home he has never known.
The vision of the driven and impatient Genesis Space Technologies CEO Nathaniel Shepard (RoboCop’s Gary Oldman), East Texas is a permanent residence on the red planet but like any endeavour there are unexpected complications, astronaut Sarah Elliot revealing two months after departure from Earth that she is expecting a child; with no mention of any complications during the pregnancy she dies moments after giving birth to Gardner.
Faced with a public relations disaster however they approach the problem child, either attempting to bring him back to Earth where he may not survive or leaving him in permanent exile on the new colony, Nathaniel instead opts to create a timebomb by keeping his existence a secret, but sixteen years later Gardner is old enough to make his own decisions, and finding a link to his unidentified father he is determined to meet him.
With surgery to strengthen his bones, Gardner sets out for distant Earth under the watchful eye of Kendra Wyndham (Wayward Pines‘ Carla Gugino) but chafes when he is kept in isolation, even though as a child raised by scientists he cannot fail to understand the reasons why, and breaking free he attempts to reach the schoolgirl who he has befriended over time so together they may find his family.
Having made a career of playing the outsider, in Ender’s Game and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it is no stretch for the talented Asa Butterfield to play the awkwardly intelligent Gardner, nor for Tomorrowland’s Britt Robertson to become loner Tulsa, passed around the care system and accustomed to fending for herself, but in a significant role Oldman is asked to little more than stomp around and blame others for the consequences of his own actions.
Directed by Hannah Montana: The Movie‘s Peter Chesholm who also voices Gardner’s robot friend Centaur, The Space Between Us is aimed squarely at the same audience of teenage girls but despite almost twenty years in development across different iterations the script remains as untenable as Gardner’s existence down the gravity well.
While the communication between Mars and Earth is not frequent when it does occur it is instantaneous; while not a vital plot point, surely had the speed of light been overcome it would be a significant development? Instead of making a token attempt to acknowledge the obligations of science even if it’s just an excuse to get on with the story such as the Ansible or the Dirac radio, the interface is simply labelled “Quantum Com Light Minute Compression” without explanation then ignored.
It’s difficult to decide which proposition is the more insulting: that the producers believe teenage girls are so stupid they have no knowledge of basic science or that they believe teenage girls are so shallow they have no interest in it. It’s one thing to sidestep some esoteric knowledge held only by cosmological specialists, but pretending the fundamental speed limit of the universe doesn’t matter – especially in a science fiction film about the distance which divides people – is an act of omission both ignorant and arrogant.
More central to the plot, while Kendra and Gardner both say they “feel heavy” on Earth it’s not expressed in their movement or behaviour, neither of them using walking aids and he able to run to catch a crop duster as it taxis towards take off, even though it has been stated that never having lived under heavy gravity he would be unsuited to the stress of that environment, then later developing overwhelming symptoms only when it is required by the plot, the solution presented more likely to kill him immediately than actually alleviate the problem.
Overly sanitised from the manufactured pride of the prelaunch conference with its rehearsed soundbites to prepared questions, one comment is made that Sarah was “irresponsible” allowing herself but the precautions she could have taken are never raised. In fact, for a film aimed at teenagers which is driven by an unplanned pregnancy, the failure to mention contraception in any capacity, neither in relation to Sarah nor when Gardner and Tulsa later share a sleeping bag under the stars, is inexcusable.
While it is conceivable that Sarah made a conscious decision to have a child, that the only thing unplanned was that she would not be there to raise him, the question is never raised in any capacity, perhaps an attempt to appease the volatile viewers of the sensitive Bible Belt which instead damns the filmmakers for their timidity.
Similarly irresponsible is the apparent absence of crash helmets and the indifferent attitude to seatbelts in the world of 2034 which otherwise is very like 2016, with wind farms, supermarkets, schools and homeless people, though like Tulsa’s poor white trash alcoholic guardian they are appropriately harmless. Curiously, while Tulsa’s smartphone apparently has an app to start the ignition on a stolen car, the police lack a corresponding app to stop it remotely.
Ostensibly about Mars, Earth is the more beautiful world, and the film is stunning, the Magellan 61 breaking through the clouds on ascent inspires more than the words, Gardner’s first glimpse of Earth from orbit, thunderstorms and aurorae and dawn and oceans, but the whole plays like a montage whose accelerated pace undermines the characters but never distracts from the ridiculous contrivances on which the whole house of cards is built.
Playing like a Hallmark television movie of fish-out-of-water acclimatisation jokes, telegraphed revelations and endless montages which somehow stretch to two hours, despite everything being abbreviated nothing ever seems to get to the point, and while not as cloying as it could have been thanks to the performances of the leads The Space Between Us should have been considerably tighter.
The Space Between Us is currently on general release