Review: The Space Between Us

"The Space Between Us" is sweet and sentimental in a superficial sort of way, the kind of theatrical candy that critics hate but casual moviegoers eat up. Indeed, many professional reviews have slammed the film as schmaltzy. I'm not so cynical as to be immune from a little well-meaning cheese and if excessive sap was its only problem, this might be a very different review. But "The Space Between Us" is undercut at nearly every turn by scrambled, almost directionless film editing and a script badly in need of revision. Yet even as I'm writing this I find myself wanting to like it more than I did because, gosh darnit, the movie means well! What a pickle.

The story puts an interplanetary spin on otherwise standard YA romantic dramedy. Elliot Gardner is a sixteen year old whose very existence is classified, secretly raised by scientists on Mars after the sudden death of his astronaut mother. It's a lonely life (his best friend is a robotic babysitter) made tolerable by Skype sessions with an Earth girl named Tulsa. After finding a video of his father, Gardner feels more and more trapped by circumstance until the powers-that-be offer him the chance to visit the homeworld he never knew. Gardner seizes the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and immediately goes on the run, determined to find his dad - with Tulsa's help, of course - unaware that Earth's heavier gravity is slowly bringing heart to a stop.

Broadly, the story is fine if unsurprising, buoyed by a pair of perfectly likable performances from its leads, Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson. Butterfield plays awkward but earnest well and the interactions between his Gardner and Robertson's fiercely independent Tulsa produce some genuinely chuckle-worthy moments. But each scene advancing their blooming relationship is interrupted with real clunkers. "The beautiful music you make gives you away," said no sixteen-year-old (or anyone) ever. Veteran Carla Gugino turns in a solid supporting role, bringing some dramatic weight to the story alongside an overacting Gary Oldman as they race to save Gardner from himself.

It isn't just the dialogue; generally, the script seems several rewrites short of a final draft. The action is frequently propelled by absurd coincidence. When Gardner finds himself in momentary danger after recklessly driving a rover far from the Mars station, help immediately materializes out of nowhere. In another scene, Gardner needs to bypass security systems and it turns out a magnetic implant in his chest shuts them down (apparently its only function as the device is never mentioned again). As Gardner makes his escape from NASA, the base is put on lockdown - "No one in or out!" - except, it seems, for a caravan of unsearched cargo trucks. Each break is dumber than the last. When Tulsa steals an iPad for directions and declares "We're so lucky, it's unlocked," you'll swear she winks at the camera.

These may seem like nitpicks, but they add up to a film unable to engage its audience any more than if they'd simply read the script, its own weaknesses exacerbated by editing that honestly feels unfinished. Some scenes end mid-argument, then resolved off-screen by the very next shot. Others linger too long after ending, such as concluding a dramatic revelation with two characters awkwardly running away from the camera. Others slam competing emotional tones together with no transition at all, like abruptly ending a high energy shopping trip and it's accompanying pop music soundtrack with quiet contemplative piano playing in the same scene. It's funny, but you aren't meant to be laughing. Whatever experience the filmmakers intended is lost among the missteps as the film struggles to establish emotional identity or tone.

And yet, despite all of that, I still want to like "The Space Between Us" more than I do. It is not a hatable film. Even though I groaned and snickered, I liked Gardner and Tulsa enough to want to see it through to its silly conclusion. It's not a good movie, but it did make me smile. And really, that isn't the worst way to spend a Saturday.

Score: 2.5 / 5

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