Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
While we’ve recently had a boom of space-centric features that have been suitable for audiences of all ages (ARRIVAL and THE MARTIAN, most notably), it’s been a long time since we’ve seen one primarily geared toward teens and their coming-of-age travails. The ’80s were a goldmine for that cinematic subset, with films like SPACECAMP kicking off a wave of similarly themed pictures. Director Peter Chelsom’s THE SPACE BETWEEN US plays like a mix of THE MARTIAN and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS whilst also daring to emulate WINGS OF DESIRE. Unfortunately, its noble efforts are hampered by troubled beginnings, which spiral into a very problematic third act that ultimately self-destructs.
Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is unlike any 16-year-old. He was the first baby born on Mars, raised entirely in secret by scientists in an experimental colony after his astronaut mom (Janet Montgomery) died during childbirth. His unconventional upbringing and longing for something more has birthed frustration about the life he feels he was meant to lead on Earth. Gardner has begun an online romance (the how of this is never explained) with foster teen Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and hatches a scheme to visit her. Defying doctor’s orders, corporate naysayers and a percolating PR nightmare, he becomes the “Herlihy Boy” of interplanetary travel. But when Gardner arrives, deteriorating health issues put a time limit on his Earthly vacation, forcing him to go on the run, find his lady love and uncover the mystery of who his father is. With Elon Musk-esque billionaire Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and capable engineer/ surrogate space station mom Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino, who imbues her role with humanity and grace) chasing after them, the star-crossed lovers battle against a ticking clock.
Surprisingly, believability isn’t the heart of the problem here – though the “receipt dropping” tween sitting behind me during the press screening would beg to differ. No. What’s most frustrating is how astoundingly messy and contrived the narrative is. Allan Loeb’s (COLLATERAL BEAUTY) screenplay can’t commit to anything it sets up. Corporate’s decision to keep Gardner under wraps (and then later, pulling a 180 on this) is completely arbitrary. They broach this concept of media blackout, but it’s only dealt lip service. When they renege on keeping this 16-year secret, it’s even more maddening as it’s clearly only due to screenwriter convenience. The film doesn’t just do this once; it does this constantly, whether it’s dealing with Shepherd’s own health issues that hold him back from space travel, to Kendra’s motherhood calling (portrayed perfectly until it’s not), to (the most egregious) Gardner’s wants and physical needs. Character arcs don’t payoff in logical ways. There’s a point in the third act that fools you – albeit momentarily – into thinking the filmmakers might take a bold risk with one of the characters, where you’ll think, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” However, as it’s been demonstrated by every prior indicator, the creatives involved also falter on this, too. The disappointment is crushing and the resolution is a big pile of nonsense.
It’s as if the character’s motivations are totally lost on the filmmakers themselves. It’s a head-scratcher when they try to pull fast ones on us with their conclusions. Any reasoning behind Kendra and Tulsa’s relationship is completely forced, as there’s no establishment of one when it’s desperately needed for this film’s pre-requisite happy ending. Without spoiling it, the way that Gardner and Nathaniel’s destinies intertwine is groan-inducing and typical of a movie developed by men. There’s also a small detail that comes across as incestuous. (Thanks, Hollywood machine!) Any time we dare to cast doubt on Gardner’s smarts, the film literally answers us, “Raised by scientists.” It’s cute the first time, but subsequently sours by the third. So then why does he write “wuz” not “was” on a truck stop bathroom mirror? We’ll never know.
That said, Chelsom visualizes the story beautifully, always making sure it represents Gardner’s POV. We fall in love with Earth all over again thanks to a multitude of second unit shots of sweeping landscapes. The ballet-like fluidity of the camera during the sequence in the space jet and when Kendra runs around the colony’s track are gorgeous and slick. Barry Peterson’s pretty, sleek cinematography resonates, giving this a big screen viewing quality. Kirk M. Petruccelli’s futuristic production design has a light touch, going subtle rather than obtrusive. Effects shots also earn top marks are they are integrated seamlessly. And the film’s romance angle will more than likely appeal to targeted teens and tweens – an audience who might be more forgiving.
Even though the script is a giant mess, at least it’s wrapped up in a beautiful package, keeping the eye entertained when the brain is over-engaging itself.
THE SPACE BETWEEN US opens on February 3.