Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: "The Space Between Us"

“The Space Between Us” is a cosmically flawed science fiction love story filled with talented actors striving mightily against bad material.

Some of the scenarios and dialogue ring so false, even the talents of Gary Oldman can’t save him from seeming preposterous at times. Asa Butterfield, who anchors the movie as the first human born on Mars who years to travel to Earth, has been terrific in fare like “Hugo” and the underrated “Ender’s Game.” Here he's a bit stiff and remote.

And Britt Robertson has often been the best thing about some not very good movies like “Tomorrowland” and “The Longest Ride.” She tries hardest of all, attempting to craft a character out of meet-cute tropes and puppy-love-on-the-run contretemps.

(Though somebody needs to tell her people that her days of passing as a teen are behind.)

I didn’t buy this movie for a minute. I didn’t swallow the premise, I didn’t believe in the characters, I wasn’t engaged in the plot the film puts them through. The whole affair is just tiresome and often ridiculous.

It plays like a combination of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and any one of a dozen teenybopper romances.

Butterfield plays Gardner Elliot. In a long, tedious and largely unnecessary exposition, we learn about how his mother (Janet Montgomery) was the lead astronaut on the mission in 2018 to permanently colonize the red planet. Except she made a little mistake and got pregnant right before the launch. (Apparently none of the 8,500 physical tests they put astronauts through detected this.)

The heads of NASA and the Genesis company that conceived the Mars mission decide to cover up the baby's existence as a potential PR disaster, especially after Gardner's mom dies during child birth. Oldman plays Nathaniel Shepherd, the Steve Jobs-like head honcho who's always flinging his hands in the air and shouting in an exasperated manner.

Flash forward 16 years, and Gardner is now a hyper-smart, mischievous kid who longs to go back to Earth -- in no small part because he's got a gal pal with whom he exchanges text and video messages. (Despite taking nearly a year to travel between the planets, apparently by 2034 data can ping back and forth without even any buffering.)

Tulsa (Robertson) is a typical tough, alienated girl struggling through high school. She takes her nickname from her hometown, because here she has absolutely no friends. There's this weird scene where she wanders into the band room and starts noodling on an electric piano, and some boys peer over the edge of the window outside to laugh at her. Then they literally chase her out of the school as she tears off angrily on her motorcycle.

Haven't these boys ever seen someone playing a piano before. (Especially in the band room.) Or don't they just have better things to do? It plays out like a fourth-grader's conception of what high school must be like.

Let's skip ahead. Gardner manages to get himself to Earth, but his body isn't suited for the heavier gravity. He skips out from the NASA facility to hunt down Tulsa, and pretty soon they're on the lam while the science guys and lawmen are on their tail. Tagging along with the chasers is Carla Gugino as Kendra, a scientist who acted as Gardner's surrogate mom while they were on Mars.

The second half of the movie is one big chase, interrupted by smooches and the sort of deep, abiding love that normally forms over the course of two days. Gardner and Tulsas commit an astonishing number of crimes along the way, including stealing innumerable cars.

This is low-budget science fiction, so the world of 2034 looks astonishing similar to the one we have right now. The cars, the clothes, the smartphones and tablets -- they didn't even dress it up a little bit. Heck, the astronauts even ride in rockets that wouldn't look out of place in "Apollo 13." The one concession is laptops with clear cases, which are kinda cool.

After hooking up with Tulsa, Gardner's big quest is to find his father. The only evidence he has is a photo of his mom with him at a beach house. I won't say more, other than if you haven't figured out the ending by the midway point, you need some lessons on Screenwriting 101. (Allan Loeb gets the blame... er, the credit, for the script.)

"The Space Between Us" contains a few nice moments, mostly intimate little cues where Butterfield and Robertson are allowed to behave like real people rather than characters in a movie. Most of the rest is otherworldly bad.

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