The Space Between Us never goes beyond exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s so straightforward that if you’ve heard the plot—boy on Mars falls in love with girl on Earth, then comes to Earth to find her—you can probably guess everything about the story, the conflict, and all of the things it’s going to try to make you feel, with the end result being you’re not going to feel much at all.
Here’s an extended summary of the movie (written by Allan Loeb and directed by Peter Chelsom) so you can see how your guess stacks up: A few years into the future a genius (Gary Oldman) has figured out how to send the first U.S. citizens to colonize Mars. On the way there, the team learns that the lead astronaut is pregnant and her son, Gardner, will be the first human not born on Earth. Gardner is kept secret from the world until, 16 years later, he (now played by Asa Butterfield) has to leave Mars. Once on Earth, he escapes his handlers to go after the one person he knows, a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson), who he met online and lied to about his, you know, living on another planet. So you’ve got some science, you’ve got some melodrama, you’ve got teenage angst, and a love story.
From E.T. to Stranger Things, the idea of a child on the run from the government is a cinematic road well traveled. While The Space Between Us initially feels like it’s tempted to change that formula in some way, it never does. With Gardner being a literal Martian—not to mention the very idea of Mars colonization—the movie has plenty of new things it could add to a very well-known story, but ignores them. There are times it flirts with something more, but instead the movie is content to underachieve.
This might be more bearable if the film also weren’t convinced it needs to hold the audience’s hand. Having never been on this planet, Gardner relishes in simple pleasures everyone else takes for granted—the wind in your hair, the feeling of raindrops, the smell of the ocean—and it’s compelling to watch Gardner be awed and excited by these things, thanks to the great performance of Asa Butterfield. However, the film explains to us, either through its dialogue or its music, how to feel about these things instead of just letting them happen. We don’t need the characters to constantly explain to us that Gardner is delighted by his new experiences, nor do we need swelling music to hammer the feeling home. It would be better if the film let Butterfield’s performance speak for itself, especially in moments that are supposed to be poetic. But this happens frequently in The Space Between Us, and it ends up being very frustrating.
Britt Robertson’s performance as Tulsa also feels a little out of left field. She’s given a pretty complex backstory, and the character choices she makes do fall in line with an internal logic. However, her frequent monologues are just more instances of characters explaining how they’re feeling, what they’re doing, and declaring Gardner should be doing. Like the movie, her character is worried you can’t possibly understand what’s happening unless she tells you explicitly. Occasionally Tulsa makes this charming, but most of the time is debilitatingly annoying.
The Space Between Us isn’t all bad. Again, Butterfield’s performance as a young adult experiencing Earth for the first time is great. The movie does an excellent job intertwining the various plot threads together. Although an unsurprising story, it’s still frequently engaging. And the things it does wrong are also not egregious, just annoying.
Mainly, The Space Between Us is nothing more than what you’d expect from a formulaic teen romance, even with its scifi twist. It’s nice, but it’s not special. If I hadn’t written this review immediately after seeing the movie, I probably would have forgotten it by now. Unless you are also paid to write a review of it, you’ll probably do the same.