Sometimes when a movie seems off, it’s necessary to consider whether we might be off and not the movie. Maybe we’re just used to things being done in a certain way; when they’re done in a different way, it seems strange to us. Maybe nothing is really wrong but our expectations.
In the case of “The Space Between Us,” it’s possible to entertain such considerations for about an hour, until it becomes clear. No, this movie is just off. It presents a compelling situation, genuinely touching moments and pockets of strong acting … and dialogue that has people in the audience turning to each other and laughing because it’s so absurd. The tone shifts at will from lofty fantasy to down and dirty realism, which might have been promising, except the realism seems faker than the fantasy.
In one moment, it makes you care, and in the next it makes you laugh at what you’re supposed to be caring about. The camera is sometimes placed so as to catch the actors in the throes of extreme emotion … but the emotions are so extreme that the whole enterprise is suddenly rendered counterfeit, and then ridiculous, and then hilarious. And I sort of liked this movie. It seems only fair to say that.
Of course, like all good things in life, it starts with a mission to create the first Martian colony. The idea is that the environment of Earth is getting damaged, so why not go to a planet where there is no air at all? Sure, that makes sense. On the way there — it takes months — the lone woman on the journey starts throwing up a lot. Uh-oh. She’s pregnant. She gives birth on Mars, dies almost immediately, and so the child grows up, motherless, as the first human being ever born on Mars.
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Here’s the interesting thing: Because he gestated in a gravity-free environment, his organs and skeletal system developed in an odd way. He’s suited to Mars and to space travel, but there is a real question about whether he could ever survive Earth. So once again — as in “Passengers,” as in “The Martian,” as in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” — we have space as the ultimate emblem of loneliness and isolation. And once again, it’s effective.
Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) plays 16-year-old Gardner, who has grown up indoors, talking mostly to robots and to an astronaut (Carla Gugino) who serves as a mother figure. Tall and thin with bright blue eyes, he looks frail, earnest and otherworldly. Gardner knows nothing about Earth, so when his health finally allows him to cross the vast space between nowhere and the western United States, we have the fun of seeing him react to things we take for granted as though they were new.
This is all very nice, and there are other things that are nice. He wants to meet a girl he has spoken to online, so there’s a young love element going on. Like him, she’s a teenager. Unlike him, she’s played by 26-year-old Britt Robertson (“Tomorrowland”), who looks like his baby-sitter. But from his perspective, that’s not necessarily a problem.
Gary Oldman has a supporting role as the man who started the Mars program and is ripped up with guilt at how things turned out for poor Gardner. Throughout the film, Oldman seems so happy to be finally playing a decent human being that he takes every acting moment and beats it with a club. If the role were sensate, it would be screaming at the way Oldman flogs it here. About a third of the time, it works; a third of the time it doesn’t; and a third of the time Oldman elevates the whole movie.
In general, “The Space Between Us” is a lot like that, a mix of OK, truly awful and lovely.
‘The Space Between Us’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:01.