Last year, in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” Asa Butterfield played a teenager caught in a bewildering fantasy world. In “The Space Between Us,” Butterfield returns as a bewildered teenager, exploring the possibility of love for our first human Martian.
Butterfield, 19, becomes one of those rare cases of a leading man cast against an older woman, Britt Robertson, 26. That might signal some small victory in casting, but it isn’t enough to counteract some other sexist notions in “The Space Between Us.”
This science fiction romantic film begins coyly. There’s a secret romance between a female astronaut, Sarah Elliot, and an unnamed man. As the leader of a Mars mission, she is shockingly careless with her personal life. She arrives on Mars on a privately funded non-governmental Genesis mission, a colony called East Texas, and discovers she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is covered up by the billionaire financing the mission, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) and the project director Tom Chen (B.D. Wong). To make matters worse, Sarah dies after giving birth. The baby is kept a secret.
Fast forward to skip diapers and language-learning from a regularly changing staff, at 16, Gardner Elliot (Butterfield), is a young boy in love with an angry foster child, Tulsa (Robertson). Tulsa is Gardner’s only contact on earth. Being born on Mars means that Gardner must undergo surgery in order to survive Earth’s gravity, but it will turn out that won’t be enough.
On Mars, Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) has become his surrogate mother and seems to be the only astronaut involved with Gardner’s life. His existence has remained a secret despite at least two personnel changes at the colony. While the only constant adult figure has been Tom Chen, there seems to be a message of biological imperative.
Women should become mother figures and the other astronauts, particularly the ones–all men, who saw Gardner through infancy to toddlerhood have completely disconnected. Gardner doesn’t keep in touch with them and doesn’t seek them out for help on earth.
While Nathaniel had gone into seclusion after Kendra’s death, he suddenly comes to the forefront and Tom Chen, the person with the greatest knowledge and the longest influence on Gardner, suddenly disappears from the screen after Gardner arrives on Earth and then escapes from the company’s facility.
Gardner seeks out Tulsa and together they go in search of Gardner’s father who lives in a small California coastal town. This is another fish-out-of-water film which, wonderfully lensed by Barry Peterson, might help us appreciate the beauty of the Southwest and even the rain. Allan Loeb’s dialogue doesn’t sparkle but there is something lovely a romance a long distance romance where each sacrifices in order to be together.
There is something to that. Watching a young child or a young animal appreciate rain or snow for the first time can be beautiful. This part of the movie is beautiful. What is not is the thought that a biological imperative, the mothering instinct. The person, Tom Chen, who has chosen to carefully monitored a child’s development has much more invested in a child as an adult than someone like a bio dad who only has the memory of the bio mother and the DNA behind the random successful dash of a sperm. Tom would have been the foster father from afar and his connection with the bio dad should have had more space within this story. Instead, “The Space Between Us” relies upon the allure of young love to distract us from the old-fashioned biological imperative of bio dad and the maternal instinct of bio dad’s potential love interest. Fatherhood can be just as tender as motherhood and biology isn’t the only ingredient behind parenthood.