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Movie Review: #TheSpaceBetweenUs

A teenager born on Mars seeks love on Earth in this oddly-fashioned YA misfit.

Review by Matt Cummings
The road to the Sci-Fi/YA movie The Space Between Us has been marked by almost as many delays as Elon Musk's SpaceX. First, the film was set for an October release, then a December one, and there was even talk of it crash-landing somewhere in dreaded January, a month where the unwanted, unworthy, and unlucky find solace. It's finally set to premiere this Friday, providing a gorgeous landscape to tell a story filled with planet-sized plot holes but bolstered by mostly good performances.
Sixteen-year-old Gardner (Asa Butterfield) harbors several deep secrets: he's the first person born on Mars and thus cannot come back to Earth, and the general public doesn't know that he even exists. Confined to a science base on the Red Planet, Gardner is curious and smart but wants desperately to see his mother's home, while space boss Nathaniel (Gary Oldman) ponders whether Gardner deserves a chance to try. After lengthy discussions, Gardner comes home, only to learn that everyone thinks his mother died in a space accident. Upon his escape, he heads straight for his deep-space pen pal Tulsa (Britt Robertson), who's been lead to believe that Gardner's illnesses are Earth-based. As the two journey to find his father, the couple will learn about life's tough lessons, while fellow astronaut Kendra (Carla Gugino) races to find Gardner before his Mars-borne illnesses begin to manifest.

The decision to move Space is supposedly a financial one: STX Entertainment, realizing that Disney's Rogue One might do very well in December, also looked at the crowded Oscar market and wanted out. This was a good decision, provided that was the real reason for its self-imposed juggling act. However, there's usually more to these stories than slick press releases, and the truth about Space rears its ugly head within minutes of the opening. Director Peter Chelsom and Writer Allan Loeb aren't really so concerned about the science behind their movie, and so that decision quickly overtakes our hope in various ways, including Martian gravity, pre-marital sex between boss/employee, and even whether a new car can actually be stolen using a quick motion on a cell phone. Chelsom and DP Barry Peterson shoot a very nice canvas, boasting bright colors, amazing detail on the East Texas Mars lab, and stellar space trips from a pretty planet Earth. But the team's lack of commitment to the story - which leaves some pretty big plot holes - is eminently frustrating.

Don't blame the good cast for these issues. Butterfield, who got close to nabbing Spider-man, is great here as the dorky, fish-out-of-water type. He inhabits the role of Gardner with genuine goodness, confusion, and doubt, fresh out of his teens and ready to bring Science Nerdy back. His chemistry with Robertson is cute and light, something that should appeal to teens so long as you don't realize that she's actually 7 years older than Butterfield. Gugino is far better than to play roles like these, but here she's good as the moral center without being too 'mom.' I did like how Chelsom gives Kendra a moment to explain why she never wanted to be a mother, while Gardner looks on with somewhat bewildering eyes. She and Oldman should be in darker pictures together, as each exhibits moments when Gardner's escapes force them to take a moment to look inward. Both are old pros at such investigations, and it gives Space a much-needed boost in its credibility.

But that's where I draw the line in supporting this film. Space is full of planet-sized problems - some of which I've already mentioned - but most notably in one of two reveals at film's end that feels like a surprise tacked on for surprise sake. It's truly jarring, never fully explained, and upsets what could have been a great, darker ending. I'm not encouraging you to see this just so you can judge the reveal, but it's an example of what happens when creative teams fail to consider that audiences are smarter than they think. What's worse is the thought that Chelsom and Loeb actually think audiences won't care about such details because they'll just love the story of alien love. Illogical. Space gets caught in its own wormhole of half-truths, convenient plot devices (cell phones that can apparently jack everything, surprisingly clear Skype service to Mars, and a total inability to make its characters actually look older after 16 years).

For all the things it could have been - a darker teen drama about death, a better character drama about choices and obsession, or a stinging lesson on the dangers of letting private interests run a space company - The Space Between Us is so much less. Teens might not care because of the pretty faces, and with a dearth of releases this week, it could eek out a better presence than it could have in December. But there seems to be a lot of reasons why it was pushed back to 2017; seeing the film now tells me that just like our current political situation, you can't believe 'alternate facts' like press releases, when the real problems with something are apparent simply by looking at them.

The Space Between Us is rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language and has a runtime of 120 minutes.

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