“In space no one can hear you scream.” But in showings of “The Space Between Us,” everyone will hear you laugh at moments that are not meant to be funny with airless silence during its attempts at humor. This is a saccharine science fiction romance that doesn’t actually concern itself with science fiction or romance; instead, it’s the equivalent of astronaut ice cream, lacking in substance and crumbling to bits at the slightest pressure.
“The Space Between Us” begins in 2018, where we’ve somehow managed to become technologically ready to colonize Mars just one year in the future. Yay science. Sarah (Janet Montgomery) leads the team headed for the Red Planet, but she’s shocked to find that she’s pregnant once the space shuttle is already en route. Everyone judges her life choices. She dies in childbirth, leaving behind her son, Gardner. Back on Earth, the mission’s organizers Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and Chen (BD Wong) decide to keep the child a secret from the rest of humanity because they don’t need the bad PR.
We fast forward 16 years and meet Gardner (Asa Butterfield), now all grown up, who has never known life outside the Mars colony. But he does know robots and how to grow plants on a barren planet, so…fair trade? He’s eager to go to Earth so he can find his father, visit his mother’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean and meet his internet girlfriend, Tulsa (Britt Robertson, who should no longer be playing high school students), because one reason would not be enough to risk his life. You see, only experiencing Mars’ gravity has caused Gardner to have brittle bones and a weak heart, but he’s determined. He undergoes crazy surgery to ensure his bones don’t break, but the movie won’t worry about his heart until it needs it to be a plot point. He arrives on Earth, escapes his poorly enforced quarantine and heads toward Tulsa (the girl, not the city) with Shepherd, Chen and his surrogate mother (Carla Gugino) in pursuit. Gardner longs to experience the world, asking everyone he meets what their favorite thing about Earth is, like an awkward partygoer trying out an icebreaker he saw on Reddit that day.
Geeks (like me) divide science fiction into two groups: hard and soft. Films and books classified as “hard SF” concern themselves with the science and technology in the worlds they create, while soft is more focused on the people and “soft” sciences like psychology. With little world building or details about, well, anything, “The Space Between Us” certainly can’t be described as hard science fiction. It doesn’t care about how humans survive on Mars or how Gardner and Tulsa communicate instantaneously across millions of miles. Worse than that, it never explores the why or digs into any of its broadly sketched ideas; it doesn’t invest enough in its central concept or key relationships to earn the “soft” designation either. Gardner and Tulsa are meant to have this great romance, but there’s little chemistry between them.
Its basic idea is interesting, but it doesn’t demonstrate interest in developing it beyond a one-sentence description. Screenwriter Allan Loeb is responsible for last year’s dud “Collateral Beauty,” as well as “Rock of Ages,” “Just Go with It” and two Kevin James vehicles. What’s most surprising isn’t that he wrote these other, equally terrible films, but that he keeps getting paid to do it.
Earnest to a fault, “The Space Between Us” often mentions and excerpts Wim Wenders‘ “Wings of Desire,” which ranks as one of the best films of all time. The references are at once lazy and overly confident. Gardner’s struggles echo those of Bruno Ganz’ angel too similarly, and this movie should be self-aware enough to realize the peril in placing itself next to Wenders’ soulful classic when it falls short even in comparison to “City of Angels.” [D+]