Director Peter Chelsom’s The Space Between Us may not be as majestically loony as David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty, which was also scripted by Allan Loeb, but this young-adult, science-fiction romance becomes so overwhelmingly saccharine as it progresses that one almost wishes for a trace of madness to offset its leaden metaphors, cheesy dialogue, and overbearing soundtrack. Instead, The Space Between Us is simply disappointing when it isn’t trying to browbeat its audience into emotional submission.
Chief among the film’s displeasures is the way it squanders an intriguing sci-fi premise. Set in a future in which people are able to live on Mars, the film follows a teenager, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), who’s the first person to be born on the planet, and thus has become used to its distinct atmosphere, which makes the prospect of traveling back to Earth difficult, if not downright dangerous for his health. But that’s exactly what he does, and not only to find his birth father (within the film’s first 10 minutes, we glimpse his mother immediately die after bearing him), but to meet Tulsa (Britt Robertson), an unhappy and rebellious foster teen he’s been chatting with online.
There are a few amusing fish-out-of-water gags in The Space Between Us’s first half as Gardner tries to get his bearings on Earth: he reacts in horror when he sees dogs and horses for the first time; frequently takes at face value what Tulsa often utters sarcastically; and thanks to multiple viewings of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire—an unintentionally hilarious detail, since nowhere else in the film does he evince a taste for cinephilia—he’s developed a rather literal conception of what it means to fall in love. One scene in particular, in which Gardner raises his arms heavenward and basks in the heavy rain that falls in front of a hospital entrance, stands out for a different reason: It’s the lone instance in which the film is able to ecstatically convey Gardner’s wide-eyed sense of wonder at this new world he’s entered.
Elsewhere, though, the filmmakers aren’t so artfully fixated on conveying Gardner’s encounters with Earth’s unfamiliar environs. But then, they seem to care less about the story’s sci-fi dimensions than they do about triple-underlining its romantic and inspirational clichés. It’s not enough for Gardner to display an appealing big-hearted innocence that gradually warms the emotionally guarded Tulsa; Loeb also has to give him a life-threatening condition via an enlarged heart and have characters literally tell him, “You know why you’re sick? Your heart’s too big.” And when Chelsom isn’t leaning on Andrew Lockington’s wall-to-wall score to emphasize the story’s emotional beats, he resorts to using upbeat teenybopper pop songs to remind his audience that this is a romance first and a sci-fi film second.
This bum’s rush toward inspiring viewers unsurprisingly sacrifices nuance; throughout, crucial details that should have been filled in leave The Space Between Us feeling like a missed opportunity. For one, we never discover how Gardner and Tulsa first encountered each other. And as for Tulsa’s interest in playing piano, that quirk seems less organic to her character than an excuse for the filmmakers to include a scene in which she plays a sentimental tune on a piano in a Sam’s Club, thus proving Gardner’s assertion later on that she’s much more of a softie than her world-weary exterior indicates. By that point, the film’s sci-fi premise has completely ceased to matter and all that remains is yet another cloying confection about young characters experiencing love for the first time and looking for families they never had.