“The Space Between Us” is a paradox: A film with an original premise but no other original thoughts. In the beginning, it is intriguing in just how many uncharted paths it can take its characters. It just so happens that it goes down the same path that almost every other young adult romance flick travels. It has everything — no trope goes unused; no stereotype need fear being turned away. “The Space Between Us” has room for all. Anybody who has been to the movies in the last decade has seen this teen-angst-character-drama-romance before. This time around, it’s just been thinly reskinned as a sci-fi movie.
Asa Butterfield (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) stars as Gardner, a fish-out-of-water boy, born on a human colony on Mars, who is destined to charm everyone he meets with his other-worldliness. Gardner wants to go to Earth to find his father, but he can’t go to Earth because — and this is completely serious — his heart is just too darn big. Still, it’s nothing a little bit of poorly explained surgery can’t cure, or rather, postpone until it’s convenient to the plot, and it’s not long before Gardner is off to Earth.
Once there, he meets up with Tulsa (Britt Robertson, “A Dog’s Purpose”), a collection of half-baked character molds crammed into a single teenage girl who he met online and who follows him on his journey with no questions asked. Together, they strike off on a road trip backed by an unending parade of sappy soft rock songs, and within twenty-four hours, they’ve fallen in love, because no one understands them like they understand each other.
Gardner and Tulsa’s relationship is defined by two things: his performance and her dialogue, and neither does the pair any favors. To his credit, Butterfield embodies the physicality of Gardner, who isn’t used to Earth’s gravity, but emotionally he just doesn’t work. Any scene that requires him to emote falls flat. Tulsa, on the other hand, is plagued with phrases like “Everyone’s fronting” and “See you in the funny papers,” both of which haven’t been used by any teenager since the 1980’s, but have apparently come back into prominence by whatever crudely defined future period in which “The Space Between Us” takes place. Eventually, after a few of the most excruciatingly hard-to-watch romance scenes since George Lucas gifted the world “Attack of the Clones,” Gardner and Tulsa give into their feelings and engage in ludicrously out-of-place off-screen sex. It would almost be glorious if it weren’t so awkward.
Besides the fact that almost every line of dialogue and character interaction feels copy-and-pasted from other, better movies, the biggest issue with “The Space Between Us” is that it lacks confidence. It is unsure of itself at every turn. It can’t decide whether or not Gardner is socially maladjusted; halfway through the first act, it just springs it on the audience. Then, it can’t decide how socially maladjusted Gardner is. He starts out normal, then has a working knowledge of Earth, but by the halfway point he doesn’t even know what a horse is. It can’t decide on the relationship between Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman, “Criminal”), the founder of the Mars mission, and Gardner, a bond which should define the film from the outset, but which takes so many twists and turns that it’s hard to get a handle on.
Coming into the third act, “The Space Between Us” is already on thin ice, but it’s the climax and the accompanying twist which take it from boring and generic to gleefully, magnificently stupid. Not only do the final ten minutes undo, or otherwise ignore, all of the work done on several characters, but nothing that happens makes any sense. There was no foreshadowing to what happens, and the film must then spend so much time wrapping up the consequences of that one bad decision that it forgets to give resolutions to half of the plotlines it already started. It ends as paradoxical as it began, now a film that feels overlong yet lacking any satisfying ending.