There are movies about the wonders of space travel — a short list would include "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Solaris" and "Interstellar" — that seek to test the audience's perceptual limits, altering our sense of time and place so as to usher us into the vast frontier of the unknown. And then there are movies like "The Space Between Us" — though happily, not too many — which take the vast frontier of the unknown and whittle it down to something obvious, familiar and dispiritingly pocket-sized.
I suppose it could be worse. The soundtrack, for all its loud surges of pop dreck, at least has the decency to omit a certain Dave Matthews Band song — the one that goes "The space between / the tears we cry is the laughter keeps us coming back for more," which more or less sums up this movie's idea of a tonal strategy. You may very well laugh and cry during "The Space Between Us," though probably at the wrong times and for entirely unintended reasons.
Written by Allan Loeb — perhaps out of concern that his recent "Collateral Beauty" hadn't quite satisfied our craving for heartwarming banality — the movie begins on planet Earth, where a wide-eyed NASA visionary named Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) dreams of establishing human life on Mars. A few minutes later we're on the Red Planet, where a pioneering astronaut finds her expedition cut short by unexpected news: She's pregnant. She dies soon after giving birth to a boy named Gardner who, just a few scenes later, has become a gangly, intelligent 16-year-old (played by Asa Butterfield), the first human being to be secretly raised — by the rest of the mission's astronauts — on Mars.
Significant lengths of time pass rather quickly in "The Space Between Us," except for the length of time required to watch the movie itself. From the beginning, there is something fatally rushed and cobbled-together about the premise, which takes the astonishing possibility of interplanetary travel and treats it as the pretext for a woefully earthbound soap opera.
Having known only 14 people during his life on Mars, Gardner begins a very long-distance online relationship with a plucky Colorado girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson, "Tomorrowland"). Eventually he seizes his chance and makes the trip to Earth, where he and Tulsa go on the run, searching for answers to Gardner's deepest questions about his parentage and identity. Some bland fish-out-of-water comedy ensues as Gardner, like an older space-case version of the kid in "Room" or a YA version of "Starman," struggles to adapt to his new environs — easier said than done, given how dangerously unaccustomed his body is to Earth's gravitational pull.
Gravity, as it happens, is more or less what's missing from the movie, though director Peter Chelsom ("Hector and the Search for Happiness," "Serendipity") does pull off a fine approximation of airlessness. The pacing of the individual scenes and the direction of the actors feel so clunky and amateurish, you may wonder after a while if "The Space Between Us" is meant to indicate the yawning emotional chasm between the actors, struggling to connect across a galaxy's worth of wretched dialogue.
Oldman, lately among the most disciplined of performers, seems to have interpreted his character's wild hair and mad-scientist spectacles as license to go uncharacteristically over-the-top. He's held in check somewhat by Carla Gugino, bringing some warmth and credibility to her role as Gardner's de facto guardian, and by BD Wong as a NASA colleague who pushes back against Nathaniel's crazier impulses.
Butterfield strives to invest Gardner with some semblance of inner life, to give flesh to the character's loneliness and search for his place in the universe. But he and Robertson, who tends to overplay her character's outspokenness, can only do so much to slow the material's embarrassing third-act lurch into pure, unfiltered corn.
There's nothing wrong with trying to give science fiction an accessible, emotional dimension: Ridley Scott's "The Martian" managed it beautifully and so, for that matter, did Brian De Palma's underrated "Mission to Mars." But the clumsy, hurtling rhythms of "The Space Between Us," much like its credulity-straining visual effects, betray a movie utterly disengaged from its own premise. Far from amplifying the human factor, it merely cheapens and diminishes everything it touches, not least the audience's capacity for wonderment and surprise.
'The Space Between Us'
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief sensuality and language
Playing: In general release