It's taken longer than expected for The Space Between Us to make it into theaters. After now having seen it, however, it is understandable why this film has been dumped in mid-February. While the film isn't entirely without enjoyable elements, they are too many obstacles between the elements that are ridiculous and unbelievable.
The year is 2018 and NASA is sending its first set of astronauts into space on what will be the first long-term colony on the planet Mars. Two months into the, apparently, less than nine-month long journey, mission commander Sara Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers she is pregnant. Faced with the decision to either abort the mission, the fetus, or face the unknown results of a baby gestating in zero gravity, the decision is made to push onward, but to also keep the child's existence secret from the general public, as being born in Martian gravity will mean his body will adapt to that environment and never be able to survive on Earth. Also, probably, because the world will be very confused to learn that a bunch of humans were just sent to an alien world without conducting the most rudimentary blood tests first.
However, after 16 years on Mars the decision is made to bring Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) home. NASA decides they want the PR boost, but the kid -- who feels disconnected from all the adult scientists -- has a different goal: meeting up with his online pen pal Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and tracking down his father. Except those problems with Earth atmosphere and gravity are still problems, so when the kid takes off, NASA has to take off after him.
What follows is a road trip adventure story, and a chase movie, and a teenage romance, and also a fish out of water comedy. The Space Between Us never seems quite comfortable being any one of these things and so it jumps between them as needed to try and keep things going, but the real result is that the audience never gets comfortable with any of it.
The comedy aspect is the part that falls the most flat. The Space Between Us continually wants us to view Gardner not as a human who lived on Mars but as an actual Martian. We're supposed to laugh at all of the various things that he doesn't understand because he's not from here, but most of them don't make any sense. Gardner has clearly been educated while on Mars, we're told that he's learned a thing or two spending his entire life with scientists. He also watches movies. The one that we see is in German but it does take place on Earth. He also learns everything he knows about dating from a different movie, because in 16 years he's apparently never seen any two people in the Mars colony go to dinner together. Yes, it's true that he may have never seen the actual ocean before or experienced rain, but moments like that that could have been played for wonder are instead played for laughs. Being surprised the first time you see a horse is believable. Being terrified because you don't know what a horse is, is not. He reacts to some slang like he doesn't understand what it means, as if he just learned to speak English, while using other slang like he's been doing it his entire life, which he probably has been, because he's been living with other people his whole life. They're scientists, not monks that took a vow of silence.
The Space Between Us is most at home when it's focusing on Gardner and Tulsa's relationship. It's a paint by the numbers teenage romance to be sure, but the chemistry works well enough between Britt Roberston and Asa Butterfield. The sweetness does get saccharine on occasion and the romance does get corny but never so much so that following their adventure becomes a chore. It's not deep, but it's not bad. The teenagers that are the target audience will likely find what they're looking for if this is still in theaters on Valentine's Day weekend.
Gary Oldman appears as the man behind the original NASA mission who takes it on himself to try and chase down Gardner once the kid runs off. It's a waste of a performance that only needs to be in the first two acts of the film in order to still be there in the third act to handle a couple of key plot moments that also don't really need to be in the movie.
Gardner Elliot has one question that he repeatedly asks those he meets on his journey, "what's your favorite thing about Earth?" It could actually be a profound question for a movie more interested in asking it. There are an infinite number of possible answers. This movie is not one of them.