In Peter Chelsom's kooky teen romance The Space Between Us, men are from Mars and women are from Oklahoma. Cynical foster kid Tulsa (Britt Robertson), named for the town where she was dumped, thinks her cyber pen pal Gardner (Asa Butterfield) lives in Manhattan. Actually, he's 140 million miles away on Mars, where his mother, Sarah (Janet Montgomery), the first female colonist, gave birth to him and died.
“Irresponsible!” groans the wild-haired visionary (Gary Oldman) behind the Mars experiment when he discovers that Sarah, the public face of his project, accidentally got herself knocked up before liftoff. (In the sci-fi near-future, men are still judgy about a girl's uterus — no one goes hunting for the dad.) But Nathaniel is right that the baby is a PR disaster, an embarrassment that could destroy America's faith, and funding, for his mission. The growing boy's bones and heart acclimated to Mars's buoyant atmosphere. If he left his density for ours, he'd collapse like Humpty Dumpty. So Gardner, now 16, is the first human alien — and NASA's top secret. And he's bored to death. Everyone on his space base is a middle-aged sexless scientist, a robot babysitter, or qualified lady astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino), who seems to have been sent into space only to be his mama. How far does a guy gotta go to get his first kiss?
The Space Between Us is an easy-to-mock, weepy movie that feels like a lucid dream. When Gardner gets to earth, thanks to a bizarre operation, he and Tulsa go on the run from Nathaniel and Kendra, and the movie starts playing the galaxy's largest violin. Yet the script (by Allan Loeb of the even more head-scrambling Will Smith flick Collateral Beauty) skips all the logical steps that would make each scene make sense. We have no idea how he and Tulsa met online, or why, if he's that restless, this grouchy tomboy is the only person he's bothered to befriend. People are always showing up when they shouldn't, getting away with impossible risks, and behaving in ways you can't explain in the daylight. The plot points feel preordained by horoscope, as though Gardner's astral backyard gave him control over the stars.
Butterfield nearly makes the nonsense feel real. His glow sells it. He walks like every step is a fight against gravity. Even when he runs, his feet stick to the ground like magnets. (“I just weigh so much,” the waif-like actor moans.) The movie is powered by his face, which seems lit from within as his pale blue eyes soak in the wonders of the earth: oceans, trees, traffic, grocery stores. In one lovely moment, he clomps up to a bus stop just as it begins to rain. Everyone else ducks under a roof. He holds his face up to the sky and smiles. Gardner isn't impressed by everything. The Grand Canyon? Yeah, he's seen red rocks. Instead, he's enchanted by a caterpillar crawling on the edge of the cliff.
Tulsa is as terrestrial as Gardner is from outer space. She's literally named for 200 square miles of plains. It's not Robertson's fault that Tulsa is a ridiculous creation. She's saddled with a fantasy girl who rides motorcycles, steals cars, flies planes, throws punches ... and yet, when they scrape together the cash to buy a change of clothes, picks out a blue church dress. Robertson is the 21st century's resurrection of Veronica Lake, a tiny blonde bombshell who can cuss like a sailor. It's a good niche if she can find the right part, but so far, directors just seem to love curling her hair and putting her in jeans. They highlight the incongruity of a baby-faced beauty behaving like a truck driver, but the scripts don't give her enough material to weld the pieces together. She's been handed a comedy part and has to play it seriously.
It doesn't help that at 26, Robertson is nearly a decade too old for the part. The first time I saw her in a movie two years ago, she played a full-grown woman getting sweaty with a bull-riding Scott Eastwood, a hunk with 11 years and 50 pounds of muscle on her latest onscreen squeeze. Here, when Gardner puts his hand on her knee, she swats it away, groaning, “Slow your roll, kid.” Even though Butterfield towers over her, she makes him look childlike and inexperienced, which gives his character a boost, but makes us awkward when they kiss.
I like the metaphor that's meant to connect our lovebirds. Both Tulsa and Gardener are parentless kids learning how to feel: her, emotionally, after over a decade of walling herself off from the pain of being kicked around child welfare, and him, literally, since he grew up in an airlock. The two actors are fine throwing one-liners at each other while Oldman and Gugino argue over the story's ethical kinks. But the louder the emotional crescendo, the more tone-deaf the movie feels, until at the climax, half the theater started laughing.
The Space Between Us has admirable ambition, even though none of it works. Sure, the romance is a bust and the script is a howl. Yet every so often, Butterfield becomes infatuated with a new earth treasure — a harmonica, a homeless man, a cheeseburger — and for a moment, the film reminds us that there are things on this planet worth risking your life for. Uh, but maybe not that Mars Bar shoved into his hand as a sledgehammer product placement. Sorry you weren't born on a tastier planet, kid.