Synopsis – The first human born on Mars travels to Earth for the first time, experiencing the wonders of the planet through fresh eyes. He embarks on an adventure with a street smart girl to discover how he came to be.
My Take – Having seen this last year as the closing film of Dubai Film Festival 2016, I have been waiting for a while to write about this film. Unlike most films that were released to ride on the now fading wave of Young Adult genre, or YA that dowsed our cinemas for the last ten years or so, this Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Movie) directed film is based on an original screenplay and not any existing source material. What I mainly liked about the film is that it offers sci-fi and action without relying on done to death YA clichés (dystopian society, dating or fighting supernatural beings, etc). And unlike its cheesy title, this film is a far more serious peculiar mix of The Martian and The Fault In Our Stars, which to a certain extent does hamper its execution, but it’s hard to ignore the fact the science in this sci-fiction film is purely a set up-for what the film really wants to be: a goofy young adult romance with buckets of sentimentality. With the right amount of pacing, good editing, and energizing use of melodious music, this transcendent love story avoids the typical hyped-up special effects (that are amazing but remain appropriately in the background except when a character’s own experience makes into the main part of the theme of the scene), overly dramatic action adventure like The Hunger Games series and focuses primarily on the emotional evolution of special relationships that matter to human beings. The story follows 16-year-old Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first person born on Mars, who wants nothing more than to come to earth. His mother, an astronaut named Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery), unaware that she’s pregnant, lead the first group of humans to actually live on Mars. However, at the end of her long trip to the Red Planet, she went into labor and died due to a long list of complex problems. The private company which financed the Mars colony (known as “East Texas”) concerned about a probable public relations nightmare (and possible resulting loss in their funding), upon realizing the implications of the situation, the company’s visionary creator Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and CEO Tom Chen (BD Wong), decide to hide about Sarah’s infant son’s very existence and leave the boy on Mars to grow up in the colony.
Despite being raised by scientists, including astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), who looks after him as a surrogate mother, his awareness of a nonexistent friend in his life always gave him a sense of solace. Until he strikes up a Skype friendship with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a teenage foster girl who was abandoned by her parents when she was four and has been transitioning from bad foster home to bad foster home ever since, which has left her jaded and a little bitter, while Gardner is naïve and optimistic, but their shared longing to break out of their current circumstances helps them to bond, along with their shared experience of not having been raised by their birth parents. When the doctors at East Texas come up with a medical procedure that solves some of the physical challenges Gardner would encounter in earth’s gravity, those at NASA and at Shepherd’s company who always wanted Gardner to have his chance to visit earth finally prevail and Gardner is prepared for his first trip from the Red Planet to the Blue Planet. When he arrives, he is immediately placed in quarantine while doctors run tests to determine whether he would be in any medical danger on earth. Anxious to experience earth for himself, and worried that the scientists are going to send him back to Mars, he escapes and makes his way to Colorado to meet Tulsa, who despite being skeptical about his mental condition especially when he tells her the truth about his background, helps him evade Shepherd and Kendra (who are desperately searching for Gardner) and the two teens go on a road trip to fulfill Gardner’s ultimate goal of finding his birth father, who happens to be still alive. On the face of things, this flick may appear to be a typical sci-fi tale. But it’s really not that at all as this is a pretty straight-forward teen boy coming-of-age story, only in this case the emotionally tortured and awkward guy and his impossible high school crush really are from different planets. There are some solid messages here about a young person’s longing for love, family and identity and there are self-sacrificial actions in the slightly futuristic mix and we even get a finger-wag or two at people who make self-centered choices without thinking about the future pain they could potentially be causing. The melancholy of relationship bonding lost, found, threatened with lost, filled with regret, discovery, and longing are infused throughout this film. The storyline never veers off into the outrageous and keeps the plot pretty normally “weird” and remains believable for the most part. Being that Gardner is experiencing everything for the first time and Tulsa has experienced everything terrible in life at least once, well outside of things which would require trigger warnings, it was nice to see these two together. Gardner gave Tulsa hope, a taste of love, and she was able to bring him to reality. But rather than do so in a mean, sort of knock him off his branch kind of way, she, often flabbergasted tried to explain the way the world was as she came to accept she liked his viewpoint on things. Also with how everything was new to him to the point it seemingly became new to her as well. Like many a tale of teenage exploration, though, the film also launches into some angsty elements that detract from the film as a whole for example, Mars-boy Gardner and Earth-girl crush Tulsa leave a trail of stolen vehicles and smoking, damaged property in their wake when they’re not snuggled up romantically in a sleeping bag or relishing the road trip scenery. And the film lightly applauds their lying, rule-breaking and destructive rebelliousness as long as it ultimately leads to truth and love. That sort of cinematic stuff can be navigable if seen through a metaphoric lens, but teens looking at it as a real-world road map, could find themselves adrift especially in the second half that is such a heart-on-its-sleeve love story, aimed so squarely at teenage girls, that your 13-year-old daughter or sister may walk out of the theater swooning.
Talking about characters, I found it so interesting that with the little information we are given about Tulsa, with her being in multiple foster homes, disappointed many times over, and having a drunk for a step dad, that she couldn’t have been made less of a stereotype. One of the things which really bothered me about this film is that despite all these plans Tulsa seemingly had when it came to getting away from her foster dad, going to school for music, and really having a go at that dream, pretty much we don’t see that side of her at all. Only in one scene, at some type of warehouse store, do we hear her sing and play an instrument. Outside of that, it is all Gardner all the time and just being his love interest. Not to say I wanted something darker or even some happy go lucky family worried about their little girl out there with some strange boy who says he is from Mars. It’s just, one of the main issues with this film is that no one seems that complicated even as they note how they can’t have kids, their mom died, and things of that nature. It is like, the weight of anyone’s problems is not felt and everyone’s personality is such a trope that if it wasn’t for Butterfield and Robertson‘s chemistry and other likability’s of the film, this would have been a horrible theatrical experience. The same issue applies to Kendra. She is a scientist who spent 6 or so years on Mars and not only dedicated her life to her work but also raising Gardner. I found it to be so ridiculous that upon returning to Earth, they didn’t hardly dedicate any of her time toward maybe checking out her ex-husband, maybe explaining why, unless it was to continue playing mom, she decided to go to Earth and, in general, with the women of this film I just wanted them to have some sort of autonomy. Some sort of sign or signal that their lives have meaning outside of worrying about Gardner. In fairness, the film does ultimately answer some of lingering questions one might have before building up to a clever twist at the end that enhances it tremendously, and its depictions of what happens when a Mars-adapted human returns to Earth are quite intriguing. It’s obvious the film’s premise is inspired from the above mentioned films yet screenwriter Alan Loeb‘s successfully focusing on the budding romance between Gardner and Tulsa rather than the science fiction elements. Director Peter Chelsom strikes a good balance between the drama and the natural humor that would arise from the situations in such a story, but has trouble effectively blending the larger-than-life tale with the very personal saga at the film’s core. However, when you really think about it, this film unlike most films of the genre (or at least the most popular of them) tries to bring in some refreshing changes to the menu. And last but by far not least, the film has a nice classic Steven Spielberg-ian feel which puts the sense of wonder and adventure back to sci-fi which, in my humble opinion, is often missing or buried under all those visual effects and high quality set pieces. Even good old Spielberg himself is not always able to pull it off: the film makes you actually care about the characters because there’s a real human backbone to the story. Its entertainment but it also has heart. The performances are also rather good. Asa Butterfield does a good job here. There is a certain awkwardness in him, the ability to seem like a person who spent their life being an “Other” which is what draws me to Butterfield, his own brand of quirkiness is all about bringing this sheltered, and often yearning for adventure characters to life. Something he does splendidly with Gardner to the point it makes you think he could do well with a few more romance movies under his belt. The actor also has a nice, easy chemistry with the pretty Britt Robertson, who does well as Tulsa, although she looks a bit too old to be playing a high school girl. Gary Oldman finally gets of delicate and surprisingly riveting role if one pays careful attention, unlike his overly serious, rather superficial roles he has been playing until recently. In supporting roles, Carla Gugino, BD Wong and Janet Montgomery play their parts well. On the whole, ‘The Space Between Us’ is a noticeably flawed film which ambitiously tries to combine science fiction with teenage romance by being a little creative, mostly entertaining and quite touching.
Directed – Peter Chelsom
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes