The Space Between Us
Directed by: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Gary Oldman, Britt Robertson, Carla Gugino
Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language
2 hr.

In this season of honors and heavily praised cinematic masterpieces, it may not be entirely fair to put The Space Between Us in the crosshairs. It’s a movie written for and marketed to the vast audience that falls between the ages of 13 and 18. That’s evident from the ear-splitting soundtrack and the yearning, young-love plot. It’s as if Nicholas Sparks had written Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. A movie about the final frontier that’s definitely not for Trekkies — the more serious among them would retch all over their Star Fleet uniforms after the first 10 minutes.

The Space Between Us begins with a roaring Gary Oldman as Nathaniel Shepherd, the stage-strutting, Elon Musk-meets-Richard Branson visionary behind a mission to colonize Mars. Two months into the journey, lead astronaut Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers she’s pregnant. On Mars, Sarah dies in childbirth, leaving a newborn son, Gardner. Nathaniel decides the birth of the child must be kept classified — against the wishes of Flight Director Tom Chen, played by a game BD Wong. To see Oldman and Wong, in this motion picture, is to know that actors quite often simply take the work. Oldman has eaten up the camera in some sensational movies (Sid and Nancy, JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Contender, to skim the surface on a superb career), and Wong did likewise as the psychiatrist on Law and Order: SVU.

The film flashes forward 16 years, with Gardner now a hyper-intelligent teen, raised on the red planet by scientist-astronauts, foremost among them Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino). Screenwriters take it for granted that all teens are savants at the computer. Gadgets abound in this movie, from the tablets we already know to more futuristic devices. Online, Gardner develops a relationship with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a foster teen in Colorado. Their face time generates the longings that course through any teenager, and soon he wants to experience the planet of his conception.

Accompanied by Kendra, Gardner arrives on Earth, amazed by its color and sound, but blissfully unselfconscious and unaware that his Mars-born body is rejecting the planet’s atmosphere. He finds an annoyed Tulsa (she had heard nothing from him for months, not ever knowing he was on Mars, or en route to Earth). They make up and then take off, in search of Gardner’s only Earthly connection: his dad.

An alarmed Nathaniel and Kendra are in hot pursuit. Gugino never fails to entertain. Her portrayal of Kendra is as beyond this film’s dimensions as the special effects; both are first-rate. The power she brings is not that of the usual adult character in a traumatic teen flick. She’s always a strong performer.

With his body failing, the race is on to find Gardner quickly and get him back to Mars. On the run, he experiences our world and its greenery, the awesomeness of the feminine form, the delight of running through fields, and disorientation in the ultimate neon jungle, Las Vegas. All the while, Tulsa steals cars like the cast of Gone in 60 Seconds. As Gardner’s health further deteriorates, the couple gets closer to finding his father. You’ve seen this kind of melodrama before, right?

It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Damon dominated the screen as the star of The Martian. This particular visit to the fourth planet from the sun is nowhere in the same orbit. That doesn’t, however, disqualify The Space Between Us from being a pleasant night at the movies for teens. To really come down on this well-intentioned film would be tantamount to setting a Muppet on fire with a cigar. Put simply, the film is built on a premise not exercised to its fullest. But maybe a more probing, powerful effort isn’t what director Peter Chelsom and screenwriter Allan Loeb intended in the first place.