“The Space Between Us” (2017): Fluffy Trifle of a Teen Romance Masquerading as Science Fiction

The Space Between Us

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is the tale of the first human raised on Mars who returns to Earth, is puzzled by it, and ultimately affects societal change; it is a cultural touchstone and a seminal piece of science fiction. The Space Between Us (2017) is the tale of the first human raised on Mars who returns to Earth, is puzzled by it, falls in love, and solves some personal issues; it is a nice, inconsequential “date movie.” Asa Butterfield’s performance as the Martian-born teen Gardner Elliot is probably the one real reason to see the film, that is if one is not a teenager out on a date. The film is hampered by numerous plot holes and giants gaps in logic. That said, this is first and foremost a teen romance, and it hits the heartstrings as expected.

The Space Between Us - Mission
Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) sees off the crew of the Mars mission

It is the near future and billionaire Nathaniel Shepherd’s (Gary Oldman looking very much like Richard Branson) company is launching a joint mission with NASA for the second attempt to colonize Mars. (The first attempt ended in tragedy.) Midway through the voyage, mission commander Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers that she is pregnant. Commander Elliot knows who the father is, but she will not share that information. Due to the pressure on the mission to succeed, Shepherd and his team decided to keep the child a secret. Sadly, once on Mars, Commander Elliot dies during childbirth. Fast forward 16 years – the child, Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), is now a teenager. His existence is still a secret to all but a few people on Earth as well as those in the small community of scientists living with him on Mars. Gardner is a bright young man, but he is also a rebellious teenager, much to the chagrin of his surrogate mother, mission scientist Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino). His one connection with Earth is his online friendship with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a teenager living in foster care in Colorado and who does not realize that her friend lives on Mars. One evening, Gardner discovers a photograph of his mother and a man he presumes to be his father. Wanting to make a connection with his father, with Kendra’s help, Gardner undergoes surgery and training to condition his body for Earth’s gravity. Upon landing on Earth, NASA quarantines Gardner when it turns out that his heart cannot handle Earth’s gravity. Not to be deterred, Gardner escapes and heads off to find Tulsa. As Tulsa and Gardner head out on an adventure to find his father, their relationship deepens. Meanwhile Shepherd, Wyndham, and other, including Shepherd’s associate Tom Chen (BD Wong), chase after them with the goal of returning Gardner to Mars before he dies. Can Gardner and Tulsa find his father, and find love along the way, before the well-meaning adults forcibly return the young man to Mars or before he succumbs to Earth’s gravity?

The Space Between Us - Joyride
Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) sneaks out of the colony to drive around in a Mars buggy.

Asa Butterfield’s performance is the strongest selling point of the film. He does an excellent job playing a teenage fish-out-of-water. The only time his performance does not quite work is when he had to mime as if he is having trouble walking in Earth’s gravity. Otherwise, his turn as Gardner includes just the right amount of charm and naiveté combined with teenage angst. There is more than a little bit of Jeff BridgesStarman (1984) in Butterfield’s performance, and that is a good thing.

The Space Between Us - Pondering
Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) and mission scientist Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) talk with mission control.

If one is looking for hard science fiction, one probably should look elsewhere. The film has the trappings of hard science fiction, taking the time to try and build a believable near-future mission to Mars. Unfortunately, it tosses away that authenticity by some generally silly contrivances and plot holes. It is one thing to ask the audience to buy that an astronaut’s pregnancy is covered up. On the other hand, it takes the suspension of disbelief of a whole order magnitude higher to accept that NASA and a private contractor can keep the existence of Gardner secret for 16 years, especially with a full crew living with him on Mars. Surely news of the existence of an extra member of the small Martian colony would leak out in that time. Also, it strains credibility that Gardner would be able to sneak out of the colony at and go on an unauthorized drive in a Mars buggy. Once Gardner ends up on Earth, the lapses in logic continue, including his reaction to various Earth phenomena, such as his stunned reaction to seeing a horse as if he did not know what it was in spite of the fact of having full access to movies, books, and television.

The Space Between Us - Colony
The Mars Colony

Judging The Space Between Us on its scientific/hard science fiction merits is a bit unfair. The film is primarily a romance with science fiction trappings. In this respect, it is somewhat successful, though it does stumble a bit. In the early portions of the film, one does not really get a good sense of Gardner and Tulsa’s relationship. Later, once they meet up in person, they are able to develop a better chemistry and more believable relationship, though it feels a bit rushed. The film pulls all of the expected heartstrings and may even bring a tear or two to the eyes of some audience members.


The Space Between Us - Motorcycle
Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and Gardner (Asa Butterfield) try to outrun the adults.

The Space Between Us is a light romantic teen adventure in the guise of a science fiction film. Asa Butterfield gives a strong performance as the teen protagonist. Plot holes and contrivances take the film out of the realm of hard science fiction and into silly puffery. The film is a decent little romance, though it takes some stumbles along the way. Those looking for an intelligent science fiction action film should look elsewhere, but those wanting a romantic movie to catch on a date night should find that The Space Between Us fits the bill.

The Space Between Us 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)


The Space Between Us - Poster
Poster for The Space Between Us

Doc Rotten
Editor-In-Chief / Founder / Podcast Producer at Horror News Radio
Doc Rotten is the founder of Gruesome Magazine. He is also a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and the podcast host & producer for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast and Hannibal Fan Podcast. He is also co-host of the Dracula podcast on TV TALK and is a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior.

Doc a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist. Still a huge fan of horror films from the 70s, Doc continues consuming horror films to this day for the site, for the podcasts and for the fun of it all.