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The Fault in our Mars

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“The Space Between Us” fails to launch

No matter how big and omnipresent franchise blockbusters might ultimately become, there’s always going to be room at the movie theater for stories about young people falling in love. The context from which that love comes varies considerably, but at their core, they are love stories.

And so this inevitably leads to the love-story-but-with-spaceships “The Space Between Us,” with Asa Butterfield (“10,000 Saints”) and Britt Robertson (“A Dog’s Purpose”) as a pair of star-crossed (well, planet-crossed anyway) potential lovers brought ever closer together by the extreme circumstances of their burgeoning relationship. Unfortunately, it never really takes off; the result is a bland effort that can’t manage to find a way to engage emotionally or conceptually.

In the near future, NASA – along with the help of a vaguely-defined corporation called Genesis – have put together a project to establish a base on Mars. The head of Genesis is a scientist/guru-type named Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman, “Criminal”) with stars in his eyes.

Things go sideways when it turns out that the mission’s lead astronaut is pregnant. This leads to her giving birth to the first human born on Mars; unfortunately, she doesn’t survive the birth. There’s a massive cover-up to hide the pregnancy, leading the baby to become a classified subject.

Sixteen years later, Gardner (Butterfield) is a teenaged boy who has spent his entire life living at the base. He’s bored and lonely; his only in-person interactions are with astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino, “Wolves”) and an unimpressive robot. However, he has made contact (somehow – it’s never explained) with a young woman named Tulsa (Robertson); the two video chat daily, but Tulsa knows nothing about the specifics of Gardner’s situation.

When Gardner discovers evidence that might lead him to meet his father, he asks for the chance to come to Earth. Despite the potential physical consequences, he is allowed to make the trip. SO of course, he almost immediately escapes from NASA and makes his way out into the world. He quickly tracks down Tulsa and enlists her in his quest.

Shepherd and Wyndham – along with assorted government agencies – are desperately trying to track Gardner down, both to keep him safe and to keep people from finding out the truth about his origins. Gardner and Tulsa must stay one step ahead if they’re to have any chance to find Gardner’s father before their time runs out.

And wouldn’t you know it? They fall in love along the way.

This isn’t a good movie. It is pretty much the opposite of a good movie. Despite seeming competence in various spots in front of and behind the camera, almost nothing about this movie works. The central love story is unengaging and the narrative in general is unfocused and meandering. Basic logic doesn’t seem to apply in a lot of spots, leading to some ludicrous and inexplicable moments (there’s a barn explosion that is almost purposefully nonsensical, for instance). Director Peter Chelsom has some moments, but they’re largely undermined by the inconsistencies of Allan Loeb’s screenplay; out-of-character choices and illogical leaps abound.

“The Space Between Us” is what you’d get if you hit John Green between the eyes with a ballpeen hammer and then demanded that he rewrite “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It’s like the screenwriter fell asleep during “The Martian,” woke up during “The Notebook” and wrote down a half-remembered dream. Call it “The Fault in our Mars.”

It’s really too bad for Butterfield and Robertson; they’re both significantly better than they’ve shown here. Unfortunately, the stakes of their relationship seem artificial – despite their obvious efforts, the two simply don’t generate any spark. Even taking into account the relative innocence of it all, there needs to be something there. Butterfield’s lack of affect works more often than it doesn’t, but he’s almost too disconnected; he’s hard to root for. And Robertson tries her best, but she’s not given a whole lot to work with aside from “tough girl.”

Oldman spends much of the movie with a grin-and-bear-it vibe, growling and grumbling his way through his scenes; Gugino does her usual solid work in a part that feels similar to a million other ones that she’s done. BD Wong is here as “guy that Gary Oldman talks to.” And that’s … kind of it.

I’m sure “The Space Between Us” made a lot of sense as a pitch. “Space-adjacent teen love story” probably tests really well. But the key component of a love story is, well … the love story. That dynamic simply didn’t click. Throw in a narrative full of holes and an overly-casual approach to basic physical laws and you get a movie that – despite its sky-high concept – never gets off the ground.

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