After the success of “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” there was an entire sub-genre of movies about boys or aliens or robots (or robot boys or alien robots) who fled the authorities while learning about what it means to be human. “The Space Between Us” hearkens back to those movies in such a clumsy and clichéd fashion that it merely reminds you what its predecessors did correctly.
By the time we reach a ludicrous third act, involving predictable revelations and a spacebound ticking clock, “The Space Between Us” evolves from prompting giggles and facepalms to full-on, out-and-out guffaws. This movie may take itself seriously, but it defies viewers to do likewise.
A manned mission to Mars to create a colony there goes awry when the one female astronaut in the crew discovers she’s pregnant. (Unless John Waters is directing, women never throw up in the movies unless they’re with child; similarly, they never cough unless they’re dying.) The baby is born on the Red Planet, but the mother dies immediately afterward. To avoid negative publicity, the mysterious Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) keeps the baby a secret lest the project’s backers pull out.
(Already this movie is muddled — who, exactly, is Shepherd? Is he with the government? Is he a rich investor in the project? And if the latter, why does he worry about the money going away? We’re only five minutes in at this point; there’s plenty more bad plotting to come.)
Jump to 16 years later: The astronaut’s baby boy, Gardner, is now a teenager (played by Asa Butterfield, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) who feels hemmed in; he’s spent his entire life on Mars, mourning his mother and curious about the father he never met. (He fills his days with repeat viewings of “Wings of Desire,” violating the rule that a film should never contain another, better film that audiences would rather be watching.)
His only contact with anyone outside the Mars colony comes in his daily text sessions with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a foster teen living in Colorado. Gardner tells her he lives in a New York penthouse and can’t ever leave because of a bone disease; it’s not entirely untrue, since the difference in gravity between Earth and Mars would require him to have skeletal implants.
That’s an operation ultimately recommended by astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino), who has raised Gardner and senses his restlessness to get off Mars so he can visit Earth. After many surgeries and a seven-month space flight, he gets his wish, although he’s immediately quarantined and studied. Nathaniel wants Gardner to stay in the hospital for his own safety — there’s that gravity issue again — but the teenager uses the skills he developed sneaking around the Mars colony’s ventilation system to escape Cape Canaveral, and hops a bus to Colorado to find Tulsa so she can help him track down his father.
We’ve been on this road trip before; cinematographer Barry Peterson (“Central Intelligence”) frames their trek like a series of car commercials in which fruited plains and purple mountains’ majesty are always in the background. Meanwhile, the soundtrack vacillates between sappy pop songs (of the “whoa-oh-whoa” school) and a cloying, strings-heavy score by Andrew Lockington (“San Andreas”) that’s always operating at maximum poignancy.
It’s hard not to engage in eye-rolling over what already promises to be one of 2017’s worst movies: “The Space Between Us” spends so much time piling one daffy, laughable plot beat upon another that it never bothers to nail down the characters. Gardner is super-smart or utterly naïve, depending on the whims of the script by Allan Loeb (“Collateral Beauty”), whose way of letting us know that Tulsa is a tough cookie is by having her awkwardly work the outdated slang “frontin'” into a sentence early on.
This part of the movie, incidentally, is set in 2034, which might allow enough time for passé teen lingo to become charmingly retro; what the film doesn’t do with its jump in time is acknowledge that clothes or cars or phones or tablets might evolve post-2015. All the laptops are made of Lucite, but beyond that, there’s no effort to reflect that this is taking place in the future.
It’s a tiny point, but it’s one of many ways in which “The Space Between Us” doesn’t think through its own concept. The actors here far outshine the material. Robertson, in particular, is an appealing performer who needs a career intervention to get her out of the “A Dog’s Purpose”/”The Last Ride” /”Mother’s Day” doldrums.
Unfortunately, Loeb and director Peter Chelsom (“Hector and the Search for Happiness”) provide a cavalcade of silly story elements in lieu of emotional investment. The result is a film that appeals neither to the space between your ears nor the space between your ribs.