Have you ever wondered what would happen if they remade Elf but replaced the Christmas/North Pole elements with outer space/Mars stuff, dialed up the angst, and dialed down the comedy? Of course you haven’t. But someone must have, and as a result The Space Between Us hits theaters this weekend.
Once you think about it for a minute, the similarities between The Space Between Us and 2003’s Elf are pretty obvious: a sweet but naïve, fish-out-of-water male lead trying to reconnect with his past falls for a jaded, world-weary girl/woman with no friends or family. Plus, there’s complicated father stuff. The broad strokes are the same, but the details are different. The Space Between Us starts with a revolutionary voyage to Mars. Two months into the nine-month trip to Mars, however, it becomes clear that voyage commander Captain Sarah Elliot “acted irresponsibly” and got knocked up right before blasting off into space. They can’t bring turn the spaceship around because of the investment in the mission and they can’t tell anyone because of the bad PR, so they decide to let Sarah have the baby on Mars and then make a plan from there. Unfortunately, Sarah dies during childbirth, and suddenly there is a secret Mars baby who, because he was born on Mars, probably can’t survive on Earth.
Fast forward 16 years, and as you can probably imagine, after hearing for so long about how great Earth is but never going there, the Mars baby – now a Mars teenager named Gardner – wants to return to land of his ancestors and meet his biological father. He also wants to meet a girl named Tulsa who he met on the interplanetary version of a chat room. Turns out there are medical procedures he can go through to prepare his body for Earth, so we’re off to the races.
And that’s just the first third of the movie. From here, the story pivots from being a movie about a lonely kid in unusual circumstances, to being a romance/road trip/chase story. There is a lot of stuffin The Space Between Us – there is both world-building to do and a variety of conflicts to resolve – but the pacing works pretty well despite that. Director Peter Chelsom and screenwriter Allan Loeb seem to have made the deliberate decision not to explain anything that isn’t entirely central to the plot. A detail-oriented person might get a little frustrated that the science, futuristic technology, and even some of the relationships go largely unexplained, but to get into the details would have weighed things down. This movie isn’t The Martian, and it doesn’t pretend to be.
Speaking of differences from The Martian, in most cases the acting in this movie is not great. In fairness to the actors, the screenplay is also not strong, so they don’t have much to work with, but Britt Robertson isn’t quite believable as Tulsa, the chip-on-her shoulder kid with no friends who is struggling through the foster care system. Carla Gugino is fine as Gardner’s parental figure, but they don’t give her character much dimension or much to do. And I love Gary Oldman – who doesn’t? – but he is acting SO HARD in this movie as the visionary behind the whole Martian settlement. The one exception, and the performance on which the movie hinges, is Asa Butterfield as Gardner. Just as Elf would have been a blip on the radar without Will Ferrell, Butterfield takes The Space Between Us from forgettable cheesy teen flick to into charming coming-of-age story territory. I’m not saying this movie is going to be a classic – it almost definitely won’t – but when Butterfield is an active part of it, it’s a significantly better film.
The Space Between Us is formula-based and awfully predictable. There are tropes galore, and a few of the lines are legitimately cringe-worthy. But there are also things about it that are charming and entertaining. If you have something better to do this weekend than watch Asa Butterfield get used to Earth gravity and human interaction, please do that instead. But if not, sit back, watch, and just remember: an actual Elf remake would be way, way worse.