"THE SPACE BETWEEN US" — 2 stars — Britt Robertson, Asa Butterfield, Janet Montgomery, Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino; PG-13 (brief sensuality and language); in general release
"The Space Between Us" plays like an extended movie trailer. After a promising first act, things start coming at you in disjointed and frenetic fashion, with enough high points to give you a sense of a story, but a lingering feeling that the film still doesn't know what it wants to be.
Director Peter Chelsom's film tells the story of a teenage boy named Gardner making his first trip to Earth after a childhood on Mars. His astronaut mother (Janet Montgomery) died giving birth to Gardner shortly after her arrival at a Mars colony named East Texas. Since she wasn't supposed to get pregnant, and since Gardner's physiology leads to medical complications, the boy's existence is kept a secret. But 16 years later, accommodations are made, and a teenage Gardner (Asa Butterfield) finally makes the journey to the planet of his ancestors.
Gardner's mission is twofold. First, he wants to find his father, whose identity remains a mystery to him. Second, he wants to meet his interplanetary pen pal Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a teenage foster child who has been under the impression that he's living in a Manhattan penthouse.
Sadly, the intriguing premise is undermined by various tropes that plague the young adult sci-fi genre. The twists and turns of the story always play to the advantage of the young protagonists, dismissing logic and coherence along the way. Veteran adult actors are brought in to offer credibility and stability — Gary Oldman as Mars guru Nathaniel Shepherd and Carla Gugino as Kendra, a Mars astronaut that becomes Gardner's surrogate mother — but even as authority figures they are constantly asked to defer to their teenage counterparts.
Once Gardner arrives on Earth, he almost immediately flees custody and sets out to find Tulsa and his father. Despite myriad advantages of technology, experience and actually having lived on the planet for more than a few hours, Kendra and Shepherd continue to let Gardner slip through their fingers ... to Colorado, then to New Mexico and finally back to the coast of California.
After a while, it becomes clear that the relationship between Gardner and Tulsa is the film's biggest priority. But even though the characters talk as if they want to move slowly, and even though events are happening at such a disorienting pace that anyone in their right mind would choose to slam on the brakes and try to figure out what is going on, over and over again, the story rushes the romance from point A to point B.
And that's what's really sad, because "The Space Between Us" features some great moments that would be more effective if they felt earned. Gardner asks everyone he meets what their favorite thing about Earth is, and the sight of him standing elated in the rain outside a Greyhound station reminds us that our planet has truly wonderful things that we take for granted. But Chelsom's film feels assembled in the aftermath of production, more forced into place than organic. It's a missed opportunity.
The idea of growing up on Mars and coming to Earth is a compelling twist on the usual sci-fi perspective. Ray Bradbury would have had a field day with it. But "The Space Between Us" never really lets us feel that transition. The film is never allowed to breathe. It's rushed, and it's a shame.
"The Space Between Us" is rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language; running time: 121 minutes.