Taking John Gray’s 1992 title “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” a little too literally, “The Space Between Us” concocts an elaborate science-fiction scenario on which to hang an otherwise clichéd tale of impossible teen romance. Here, the tiny detail that prevents 16-year-old Gardner Elliot (“Hugo” star Asa Butterfield) from dating high-school student Tulsa (Britt Robertson, of “Tomorrowland”) is the fact that Gardner has spent his entire life on the Red Planet — and if he travels to Earth, he may die.
To some, that may sound like a compelling premise for a weepy romance — call it “The Fault in Our Planets,” if you like. In truth, it’s a ridiculously expensive spin on “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” where the mostly Mars-set first act adds millions of dollars to the budget but virtually no value to the story itself, a by-the numbers meller in which a freakishly tall kid with spindly bones and an enlarged heart risks his life in order to experience love and the kind of companionship he’s been denied since birth.
Conceived on Earth by a father he’s never met, Gardner was the first human born on Mars (his mother died moments after holding her son for the first time). He’s been kept a secret ever since by an eccentric British space buff named Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), who wrote a letter to the U.S. president when he was 12 explaining how “courage without limits” would lead men to colonize Mars. And now they have — courtesy of Nathaniel’s own company, Genesis Space Technologies.
Oldman’s character — who was clearly modeled after Virgin’s Richard Branson — may be responsible for colonizing Mars, but he’s otherwise a bottomless well of bad ideas. Because Nathaniel has a brain condition that prevents him from experiencing interplanetary travel, he sends a surrogate mother, Kendra (Carla Gugino), to raise Gardner on East Texas, as his pioneering space station is known. Still, it’s a lonely childhood for the boy: His peers are 14 scientists and a robot named Centaur, and though Gardner grows up much smarter than most kids, he’s still naïve in the ways of the world.
In desperate need of human connection, Gardner somehow figures out a way to video-chat with a girl named Tulsa on Earth (evidently communications technology has evolved more than space travel since they chat in real time, though the commute between planets is still seven months). Now, Gardner wants nothing more than to make the journey “home” and experience the planet everyone else takes for granted. For some reason, Nathaniel agrees to let him take the trip, and after landing, to no one’s surprise but Nathaniel’s, Gardner escapes while under medical evaluation, setting off to find Tulsa and the biological father he never knew — whoever that may be (you get one guess).
In a typical, by-the-numbers story, the repressed young couple would break away from their parents to take a spin across the scenic United States. But here, conveniently, Tulsa is an orphan and so has no parents. Perhaps the most heartening thing about this journey is how well preserved the countryside is — with its spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and all that — so gorgeously rendered by DP Barry Peterson. Where most movies about colonizing Mars double as an indictment of the damage humans have already done to Earth, this one feels like a series of scenic car commercials, smothered in obnoxious emo ballads by the likes of Ingrid Michaelson and James Bay, or else the screensaver stylings of composer Andrew Lockington.
In a movie that supposedly celebrates dreamers over cynics, there are many missed opportunities for poetry: a drive through Vegas represents the closest Gardner will ever get to the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal; and not enough is made of the fact that both Gardner’s and Nathaniel’s greatest wish is to experience the planet on which the other has been based. “What’s your favorite thing about Earth?” the boy asks everyone he encounters, which seems a perfect opportunity to explore how someone deprived of simple pleasures might experience them. Apart from a scene in which he devours a sloppy hamburger, however, the movie is content to be a dopey teen romance.
Producers tapped Peter Chelsom (director of such toxic box office flops as “Town & Country” and “Hector and the Search for Happiness”) to helm “The Space Between Us,” and the film flails around trying to achieve the same broad heartland-friendly humor of Chelsom’s last hit, “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” Nathaniel and Kendra chase the kids via helicopter as Gardner discovers the joys of Earth life — stealing cars, crashing crop-dusters, seeing the Grand Canyon and the cliffs of Malibu — while ominous nosebleeds serve to remind that all this fun is finite.
The movie has so overexerted itself with its elaborate sci-fi premise that Chelsom soon stumbles into plot holes bigger than the Valles Marineris, the most egregious of which is the assumption that Tulsa would so quickly click with Gardner after discovering that their entire friendship was based on a lie. No wonder “The Space Between Us” backed away from the “Passengers” release date in favor of a Valentine’s Day-proximate February sortie. Still, if romance-seeking audiences know what’s best for them, they’ll put some space between themselves and this movie.