The pitch for The Space Between Us probably went something like this: An astronaut learns she's pregnant two months into a multiyear mission to help colonize Mars, and gives birth to a baby boy named Gardner on the red planet. Unfortunately, she dies during childbirth and never reveals the name of the father. NASA and Genesis, a private aerospace company co-funding the mission, decide to keep the birth a secret and lie about the astronaut's death (it's attributed to a pressure-suit failure) to avoid scandal and a public-relations nightmare. Sixteen years later, Gardner (Asa Butterfield) is finally allowed to visit Earth, where he flees his caretakers and goes on a cross-country road trip with a spirited teen girl he met online (Britt Robertson) as the two of them try to find his father. Unfortunately, his body is more brittle than an ordinary human being's, and isn't compatible with Earth's more highly pressurized atmosphere. If he doesn't return to Mars soon, he'll die.
Sounds intriguing, right? The premise is ripe for action, adventure, high drama, heartfelt tragedy, and romance. And in the hands of a more capable director and better screenwriter, it could have worked. But The Space Between Us is saddled with Peter Chelsom's drab direction, poor casting, and a cliché-rich script by Allan Loeb that's peppered with clunky, cringeworthy dialogue. When a talented actor like Gary Oldman is one of the worst things in a movie, you know you're watching a stinker. He plays Nathaniel Shepherd, the entrepreneurial visionary behind the colonization of Mars, and he isn't believable for a second; his hammy portrayal is out of balance with the rest of the film. Also torturous to watch is Britt Robertson as Tulsa, Gardner's brassy online pal who steals several cars, a truck, and a plane (really!) in order to help him find his dad. The now-26-year-old actress seriously needs to stop playing teenagers, as she also does in the recent A Dog's Purpose, and pursue more age-appropriate roles. Butterfield, by contrast, looks younger than his actual age of 19, creating what seems like a huge age difference that prevents the pair from jelling as a romantic couple. He nails Gardner's wide-eyed wonder, but otherwise, falls flat as well. The only thespian to survive the misguided picture is Carla Gugino, as an astronaut who helped raise Gardner on Mars. Sadly, it's a pretty small role.
The movie's central mystery, which propels the story forward, involves the identify of Gardner's father. But anyone who has seen even a handful of films will know who the dad is within the first 15 minutes; it's the picture's worst-kept secret. The real mystery is whether Gardner will be able to survive living on Earth, or will have to leave Tulsa, his only real friend, and return to Mars.
Early on, Gardner watches Wim Wenders' masterful drama Wings of Desire, in which an angel longs to become human when he falls in love with a mortal. Gardner identifies with the angel and hopes to become fully human by visiting his parents' home planet and meeting Tulsa, the object of his affections. Tweens raised on Disney made-for-TV movies may find much to like in The Space Between Us, and may even shed a few tears along the way. Everyone else should seek out Wenders' 1987 classic instead.