I tried to channel my inner high-schooler for The Space Between Us, a movie about literally star-crossed teen lovers with All The Feels. Unfortunately, my real-life teen self’s favorite movies were Harold and Maude and Brazil, and she had absolutely no tolerance for the hackneyed story on the screen in front of her.
The Space Between Us is set in an alternate universe where NASA has the resources to set up a permanent space station on Mars in 2018. (Perhaps Elon Musk buys the agency at a government auction.) Gardner Elliot is born on Mars, but for various reasons, his existence needs to be secret, and NASA is able to conceal the secret from everyone but a few astronauts on the space station. (This furthers my theory of agency privatization.)
By the time he’s 16, Gardner has a strong desire to experience Earth life and find out who his father is, a question that has not previously troubled anyone at NASA. He also wants to meet Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a high-school girl in Colorado with whom he chats frequently online. In 2034, online communication between planets is instantaneous and flawless … but apparently facial-recognition technology doesn’t exist, so Gardner can’t identify the guy who might be his dad from a photo. Unfortunately, his Mars-born body may not be able to tolerate our atmosphere.
One unbelievable thing leads to another, and next thing you know, Gardner is fleeing Kennedy Space Center to meet Tulsa, while astronaut/surrogate mom Kendra (Carla Gugino) and former top scientist Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) are in hot pursuit.
At this point, it starts to feel like the movie is in service to the whimsical, quirky trailer that will sell it to teens throughout America. Here’s a motorcycle. There’s a crop-duster. And there’s an excuse for showering the lovelorn teens in rose petals. Naturally, the plot guides them through gorgeous shots of American scenery, and it’s a relief to learn that in the future, pollution problems have been solved despite the number of vintage-for-2034 cars on the road, since the air looks wonderfully pure.
A talented cast is walled in by sloppily written characters. Oldman acts like The Dude’s long-lost British scientist doppelgänger. When he sprawls over the seat of a self-driving car, I caught myself looking for a White Russian. Butterfield comes across as a weak solution of Bud Cort, and Robertson must have been transported from the set of Tomorrowland without anyone telling her she was playing a different character. Gugino saves her astronaut character with an uncanny ability to say it all in a very long stare.
Perhaps The Space Between Us is not meant to be taken literally at all – it’s an allegory, and I’m not cutting the story the kind of slack I would for allegorical speculative fiction like Snowpiercer or High-Rise. But those movies offer layers of meaning, while this movie has nothing new to offer whatsoever. This isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a rehash of Romeo and Juliet with extra science and no poetry. Attempts to add lyricism by including scenes from Wings of Desire only made me wish I were watching Wings of Desire instead.
It also might seem unfair to compare this movie to Hidden Figures, another movie released recently in which NASA figured strongly. But if you’ve seen Hidden Figures before The Space Between Us, you might wonder if NASA is still concealing its African-American female staffers, because you won’t see them onscreen. Even without considering Hidden Figures, it’s off-putting to notice a distinct lack of diversity in casting background characters, especially in a futuristic setting.
For similar reasons, the first 10 minutes of the movie were so off-putting that I was tempted to stop watching entirely. Naturally, the one female astronaut on the space mission becomes pregnant, because Women Are Like That, and a room of men deride her for her “irresponsibility.” The men then make the decisions about what will happen to the woman. She’s punished for her actions by dying in childbirth, because by 2018, we can send people to Mars but can’t treat eclampsia.
We encourage teens not to be lazy, and then we give them a movie like The Space Between Us that’s written and directed on autopilot. Shouldn’t we set them a better example?
Jette Kernion lives in a space colony in Austin.