Rather than embittering me, I think the current state of the world—particularly the political climate in the US—has softened me, because I didn’t hate The Space Between Us, even though the trailers had me groaning. The story is so YA that I was shocked to learn it wasn’t based on a book currently being displayed at the end of an aisle in Target. It has all the characteristics of a John Greene best-seller: precocious/winsome/endearing protagonist falls in teen-love with his or her cynical/offbeat/unpredictable opposite; “something” (cancer, or in this case, literal space) comes between them and keeps them eternally apart despite their once-in-a-lifetime connection.
The particulars this time around are as follows: In the near future, a group of scientists has been sent to colonize Mars, but shortly after landing, the lead astronaut learns that she’s pregnant. Unable to return to earth, she must give birth in space and ends up dying in childbirth. The surviving child is Gardner (Asa Butterfield), not only the first ever human to be born on Mars, but the first ever human to be raised there. Despite being lovingly cared for by the crew, he’s understandably lonely. Somehow (space internet?) he begins a correspondence with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a fellow sixteen year old who lives a slightly more conventional existence on Earth, in Colorado to be specific. So when Gardner is finally given the chance to travel there, the first thing he does is escape the hospital where his health is being monitored to go find Tulsa. Tulsa, a loner who lives with a deadbeat foster father, is willing if not eager join Gardner on his mission: outrun the scientists who are now worriedly looking for him, and find the man in his mother’s photograph who he thinks is his father.
The reasonThe Space Between Us works at all is due almost entirely to its two leads. Both Butterfield and Robertson convey a sincerity that not even the cliched and sentimental dialogue can entirely stifle. They’re cuties but not hotties, and each has an offbeat quirkiness that saves them from feeling too Disney Channel. Although in real life they’re older than their characters (Butterfield is 19 and Robertson is 26), they actually look, act, and dress like high schoolers. Tulsa wears beat up jeans, boots, a hoodie, and no makeup, and Gardner is reminiscent of a very young Bob Dylan, in his stolen grandpa clothes and Wayfarers. It’s also nice to see the gender roles reversed—Tulsa is can-do and kickass, protective, great at troubleshooting, willing to steal cars, and able to fly a plane. It’s Gardner who’s the ingenue; everything on Earth is strange and wonderful to him, and he approaches new people and places so guilelessly that it’s at times humorous.
What also works is what the filmmakers choose to have Gardner wonder at. I would have predicted that his first interactions with Earth would be social or cultural—a busy mall, a school dance, a concert with flashing lights and stadium seating. But instead, what awes Gardner is not what humans have put on Earth, but Earth itself: the rain, the smells, the ocean, a dog, a fire, a spider, the mountains, and all that green. When Gardner and Tulsa do pass briefly through Vegas, he’s disoriented and put off. “This isn’t real,” he keeps repeating as he looks around. Their road trip takes them through some of the most magnificent landscapes of the American West, the glory of which has not been dampened by time or technology.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, including Gardner’s love affair with both Tulsa and Earth. He’s growing sicker by the day, because his organs formed in space are too weak for Earth’s gravity. (Insert cringe-inducing line “Your heart is just…too big for Earth.”) Even though the ending is painfully predictable, I won’t spoil it, just in case there’s something you didn’t see coming. It’s this predictability that ruins both the film’s plot and dialogue, and thus diminishes its potential likability. Unexpectedly, the adult cast members (Carla Gugino and Gary Oldman) are another one of the film’s weaknesses. They’re wooden and unnecessary, and their worries and motivations are not only underdeveloped but unrealistic. The score is nice, but is frequently interrupted by pop-songs that seem inserted simply to sell a soundtrack.
All that said, I wasn’t sorry I saw The Space Between Us, and here’s why: throughout, Gardner asks the people he encounters one simple question: “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” One man says the rain, another says dreaming, and someone (I bet you can guess who) answers “You.” Since I’m nothing if not obedient, I asked myself the same question, and was surprised, not by my answers themselves, but by how readily they came to me. (People. Books. Movies. The changing seasons. The world’s infinite variety. Pizza.) Between the news, social media, and almost every recent public conversation I’ve had, the past few months have left me feeling worn out and over-stimulated, like my wheels are spinning both emotionally and intellectually. So it was nice to be reminded—albeit by this sappy little two-star movie—of two things we must refuse to lose: wonder and thankfulness.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.