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THE SPACE BETWEEN US: Where Many Filmmakers Have Gone Before

THE SPACE BETWEEN US struggles to find its original voice amidst the plethora of recent space exploration movies.

THE SPACE BETWEEN US: Where Many Filmmakers Have Gone Before

If you’re wondering what the commercial and critical success of last year’s Ridley Scott hit The Martian has to do with the new release The Space Between Us, the answer is; well sorta everything. The Martian was based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel of the same name. The Space Between Us is an original screenplay cobbled together by four credited writers, although more writers than that actually worked on it.

There’s a reason this all seems familiar

The old cooking adage about too many hands spoiling the broth has some application to screenwriting. Sometimes interminable rewrites improve the finished product, sometimes they don’t. The problem evident in The Space Between Us is that you’re going to think, and often, that you’ve seen this before. There’s a reason for that.

Asa Butterfield has been making hay while the sun shines since breaking through in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Featured in at least eight movies since then (some are still in pre or post-production), including Ender’s Game and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, here Butterfield plays Gardner Elliott, the first human child born on Mars.

Hero named for E.T.’s Elliott

It cannot possibly be a coincidence that Elliott is also the name of the young hero of Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1982 movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Butterfield’s character here is essentially a human E.T. on Earth, and like the lovable alien in Spielberg’s movie, Earth’s environment is toxic to him. Born and nurtured on Mars, Gardner’s body cannot handle the stress of a protracted stay on his ancestral planet, despite the surgical implants he’s been given to help his bones deal with the much larger Earth’s stronger gravitational pull.

THE SPACE BETWEEN US: Where Many Filmmakers Have Gone Before

source: STX Entertainment

Gardner’s existence is a secret to everyone but the small scientific colony on Mars that’s raised him since his conspicuously unmarried astronaut mom died in childbirth on the red planet. And, since the colony is funded by a private corporation, public relations and stock prices are of paramount importance and the boardroom suits aren’t terribly excited about letting Earth know about Gardner’s existence.

More fiction than science

Gardner’s greatest desire is to see Earth and the script is hellbent on getting him there. What no one else knows is that Gardner was Skyping from Mars with troubled teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson) – who doesn’t know where he’s been living. Never mind that a radio transmission from Mars would take thirteen minutes plus to reach Earth, so there’s no way our teen heroes could Skype, text, message or anything in else in real time. This is exactly the sort of detail The Martian tried to get right and The Space Between Us is content to fudge and hopes no one notices.

Thing is, they will notice, as well as the plot holes that dog the screenplay like cheap pantyhose in a Brillo factory. Gardner gets shed of his well-meaning guardian/captors easily enough and looks up Tulsa almost as easily as it sounds. Write, “EXT. HOSPITAL – DAY: Gardner escapes,” and you’re in. Of course the well-being guardian/captors are soon on their trail, but fortunately young Tulsa not only has access to a crop duster (in a nod to Independence Day) but knows how to fly it.

Much of the movie is spent chasing the young heroes around, á la WarGames or Starman. Of course good guy aliens have been chased around by the government since The Day the Earth Stood Still, even before the age of Donald Trump’s executive orders, and that’s the point. However energetic, sincere and good hearted The Space Between Us may be, the story’s spine is a litany of science fiction movie clichés.

THE SPACE BETWEEN US: Where Many Filmmakers Have Gone Before

source: STX Entertainment

Gardner is consumed with finding his father, whose identity is conspicuously never revealed early in the movie, and the resolution involves a couple of thoroughly unnecessary plot twists. There will be no spoilers here, though it’s an open question how many viewers will actually be surprised.

Young leads have good chemistry

Butterfield plays Gardner with a conviction that almost gets the movie over the scientific inaccuracies and the plot holes. Though nearing twenty, he hasn’t lost touch with adolescent angst, and projects a fashionable nerd appeal. Robertson is appropriately edgy and brittle as Tulsa, who’s been in foster home after foster home. She is, by the way, seven years older than Butterfield, a difference that onscreen only accentuates her greater experience with Earth generally and America in particular. The chemistry between the two isn’t bad, and their relationship unfolds gradually, tentatively, directed with sensitivity by Peter Chelsom.

THE SPACE BETWEEN US: Where Many Filmmakers Have Gone Before

source: STX Entertainment

Carla Gugino, exudes believable maternal instincts as Kendra, a scientist who is the closest thing Gardner has to a mother. The redoubtable Gary Oldman is manic as the slightly unhinged project creator whose heart is in the right place but whose brain clearly needs Ritalin. BD Wong also appears as a corporate project director who could have stepped directly out of his trademark Jurassic Park movies without changing wardrobe.

Directed with energy, but still no Martian

Chelsom (Hear My Song, Serendipity, Hannah Montana: The Movie) directs The Space Between Us with energy and an appreciation for the innocence of the main characters. He attempts to hurdle the screenplay’s cavalier attitude towards science with mixed  results. Although much, if not most, of the movie takes place on Earth, there are key sequences set on Mars, and Chelsom and his crew do not achieve the same startling level of verisimilitude managed by Ridley Scott on the far bigger budgeted The Martian. (The Space Between Us was largely shot in New Mexico with some sequences shot in Nevada and California. The Martian’s Mars sequences were shot in the deserts of Jordan, which are apparently more exotic.)

The movie’s tech credits are easily par, and DP Barry Peterson’s (22 Jump Street, Central Intelligence) digital cinematography is handsome, though not as impressive as The Martian’s digital 3D photography.

Conclusion

The recent heightened interest in space exploration has clearly translated to movies, with Gravity and The Martian scoring big with critics and audiences, and that’s a wave The Space Between Us needs to ride. The entire movie has a quasi-young adult lit vibe, slightly ironic for a movie shot from an original screenplay. Nonetheless, that should be an asset with the teenage audience, and that’s the audience they’re going to need to corral to make this modestly entertaining Martian wannabe.

What do you think? Does The Space Between Us have anything to offer other than warmed-over clichés?

The Space Between Us opens February 3, 2017 in the United States and February 10, 2017 in the United Kingdom.

 

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Jim Dixon retired from practicing law not a moment too soon, and now works as a freelance writer and film critic. A lifelong and unrepentant movie geek, he firmly believes that everything you need to know in life you can learn at the movies. He lives in upstate New York.

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