In a recent promotional interview, when Gary Oldman was asked why he signed this film, he replied vaguely after a long dramatic pause that he wanted to work with friend Peter Chelsom (director). Oldman, the legendary British actor infamous for his portrayal of Sirius Black (Harry Potter) and Commissioner Jim Gordon (The Dark Knight trilogy) is a gem of a talent. Crediting his name to a film instantly heightens its intrigue value. Trusting A-list actors like him to pick projects wisely, I presumed my sky-high expectations from The Space Between Us were reasonably set. Sadly, the man who was supposed to be the icing on the cake turned out the salt on the wound.
The Space Between Us is a mishmash of a cheesy sci-fi and a bubbly romcom. It begins with Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), the CEO of a company called Genesis, giving a speech at NASA. “Courage is fear that has said its prayers,” he proclaims. Heading a pioneering mission to colonize planet Mars, six astronauts leave for the mission lead by Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery). No offense to real-life spacemen, but it’s hard to believe in this glitzy bunch of actors pretending to be someone they’re not.
Two months post the launch we learn that their team leader Sarah is pregnant. Puzzled whether to abort the mission or not, Nathaniel calls for continuing it, anyway. Months later at the time of landing, Sarah successfully gives birth to the first human born on Mars, but dies shortly after owing to complications. Perceiving the risk of the company’s closure, the board members decide to keep the entire incident a secret, disdaining Nathaniel’s initial disagreement. Although infuriated by the decision to conceal Sarah’s child’s identity, Nathaniel eventually agrees, to avoid a PR disaster.
Fast forward 16 years, when Gardener Elliot (Asa Butterfield), Sarah’s son has grown into an eager, intelligent boy. Having met only a dozen or so people in his life (and a robot), he embodies a great zeal to meet and communicate with other human beings. Through some social media website on the Internet, he strikes an online relationship with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) from Colorado.
Seeing Gardener’s eagerness to visit Earth, Kendra (Carla Gugino), a fellow astronaut on Mars, briefs Genesis about it. Reconsidering the options of bringing Gardener to Earth, along with the other crew members for a specific period of time, the board executives contact Nathaniel for his approval. Nathaniel, living in a dilemma for the decision taken earlier and fathoming that Gardener will require to undergo a life-threatening surgery to increase his bone density, considering his body won’t function well with Earth’s gravity, rejects the proposal.
The company still greenlights the project, without informing Nathaniel. Meanwhile, Gardener secretly retrieves his mother’s items from the ship’s storage and finds a ring and a photograph of hers with someone. He presumes the man in the image to be his father. Realizing that he will be traveling to Earth, he decides to find his father and meet Tulsa. What happens next is for you to find out.
The Space Between Us is a good concept. An adaption of Thrity Umrigar’s novel of the same name, the story feels refreshing and different from a dozen YA movies with similar story threads. But the film falters miserably in execution. The excessive mawkishness is hard to forgive. The first twenty minutes test your endurance. Be it the aforementioned speech sequence in NASA or the elaborative launch sequence that follows, none manage to hold your attention.
For a film dedicated to teenage romance, it makes no sense to waste almost one-third of the runtime on something that doesn’t help the central plot. The narrative is often problematic as well. Every time the film begins to get under your skin, a dull scene appears out of nowhere pulling you out of the picture. This happens throughout the first half. And all these tedious sequences involve Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino screaming and sobbing.
This is Oldman’s worst performance till date. Not that his character is badly written. He had enough room to sprinkle the film with his pragmatic acting skills. While he looked lost in the scenes that were supposed to be dynamic, he hammed, to insurmountable degrees, in the film’s most poignant moments. Regardless of what you think about the film in the end, his bland performance will stay with you.
Carla Gugino is another actor who tremendously disappoints. It was an important role which could’ve easily added to the film’s emotional appeal, if it were done justice to. As a mother figure to Gardener, Carla needed to express emotively. Instead, she hammed throughout, almost competing with Oldman for the ‘worst actor’ trophy.
On the contrary, we have the two excellent leads Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson who create magic on screen. They are primarily the reason to watch this film. There are plenty of scenes where they make you blush and giggle. Their childlike humor and innocence are a joy to behold. For instance, a scene where Gardener joins Tulsa in her class at school and uninhibitedly responds to the teacher is priceless.
Butterfield imbues an authentic purity and loveliness into his character. He makes us believe he’s from a different planet as he astonishingly discovers Earth, questioning everyone he meets about their favorite thing on the planet. This is the portion, in fact, which amazes you the most. We see Earth through Gardener’s eyes. Its beauty, perplexity and peacefulness. We feel the water when he dances in the rain for the first time. Or when he sees a giant horse. It’s like exploring our world again and appreciating its grandeur. There’s another sequence with the intergalactic love birds on the drive, camping somewhere in the Mexico fields, lying on the ground, covered under the sheet of stars, holding an introspective conversation. The intensity is tremendous.
Robertson, continuing from George Clooney’s Tomorrowland is natural in her role. She’s never over-the-top and looks the part (despite being much older in real life). Even her scenes with her character’s father and at foster homes don’t seem out of place. She acts brilliantly. It’s a shame the writers didn’t etch a screenplay with decent enough screen time for the leads.
On the technical front, Barry Peterson’s cinematography is pretty good. All the locales of Mexico are captured beautifully. Even the bland scenes are endurable just because of him. My most favorite shot includes the hot air balloon scene in the final act of the film. Andrew Lockington’s soundtrack is generic. There isn’t a single composition worth taking away.
The Space Between Us is a mixed bag. While the good portions are exceedingly good, the others are just about bearable.
For a Valentine’s Day weekend, it’s a passable film. But if you do go, go in empty stomach. There’s more cheese than you can digest.