Monday, February 06, 2017

The Space Between Us

The new "boy-from-Mars" movie, The Space Between Us, opened this weekend in the U.S. and was pummeled at the box office, earning the distinction of being a massive bomb.


Never have I suffered through a movie so clueless about what it's actually about, and what's more, absolutely no intention of even trying to find out. To paraphrase A Fish Called Wanda, I can't call it stupid because that would be an insult to stupid films. Rarely have I paid cash money to see a film in the theater and found myself actively hating it 10 minutes in, but that's what happened with The Space Between Us. It opens with a pretentious, unnecessary, 10-minute infodump from a Burt Rutan/Elon Musk tech visionary stand-in called Nathaniel Shepherd that got applause lines from the on-screen audience at entirely inappropriate moments. As the interminable, self-congratulatory scene dragged on, I found myself thinking this actor was doing a very, very bad Gary Oldman impression. Only afterward did I realize that it really was Gary Oldman. Things went downhill from there.

Here's a quick run-down of the plot for those of you unaware of this film: A female astronaut on the first Mars colonization crew discovers she's pregnant two months into the mission. She gives birth shortly after landing, and promptly dies, as birth-giving mothers do in these kinds of films. And naturally enough, the powers that be decide to cover up the baby's existence. Instead, the baby is raised on Mars by astronauts until he grows up to be Asa Butterfield, who falls in love with a girl back on Earth nicknamed "Tulsa" through the miracle of Skyping. When Butterfield is finally brought back to Earth, he promptly escapes his captors, finds Tulsa and embarks on a cross-country road trip to find his mysterious, unknown father. Hijinks ensue. Or, you could just watch the trailer:

This had all the makings of a light-hearted coming-of-age genre romp, a pleasant diversion for a few hours with the potential to be more. Alas, it's none of those things. Which is a shame, because the only time the film isn't mind-bogglingly awful is when Butterfield and Britt Robertson (aka "Tulsa") are onscreen together. Their interactions are charming, and these two talented young actors manage to make even the clunkiest, cliche-ridden dialogue work. For the most part. Robertson, in particular, has been playing the disaffected loner type for most of her career, and if she doesn't quite manage the grit Jodie Foster showed in similar roles at a similar age, she still manages to rise above the material. Their road trip cinematography is lush and alive, from the Albuquerque Balloon Festival to the vermilion stone formations of Sedona (at least, it looked like Sedona), when these two are together the viewer is briefly lulled into forgetting how bad the rest of the film actually is. Don't believe me? To escape the authorities, the pair steal a crop duster, only to have to engine lose oil pressure and force an emergency landing. Apparently, the contrived script believes a burned-out biplane engine is impossible to shut off, because once on the ground they can't stop it ("no brakes" has got to be one on the most ludicrous lines among a host of them) and jump out before it crashes into an old, wooden barn. Which promptly explodes into a gigantic fireball. Seriously. This is the kind of nonsense The Simpsons makes fun of, with exploding soapbox derby cars and the like. I actually threw up my hands and laughed aloud at the tone-deaf stupidity of the script.

Butterfield and Robertson deserve so much better.

Leaving aside the technobabble medical diagnoses of Butterfield and Oldman (I'll cut them a little slack here, even though some of the facts are wobbly at best) the script's basic grasp of reality is horrifying. At one point, with Butterfield dying from "too much gravity exposure" on Earth, their solution is to pile him onto an experimental space plane of Oldman's which may or may not have ever flown before--all the viewers know is that Oldman has repeatedly blown up in a flight simulator before ever reaching orbit. According to the dialogue amongst the characters, if they can just get up into the Earth's stratosphere--a mere six miles up--they'll be far enough away from Earth that the gravity will be lessened and Butterfield will survive. Just flying higher reduces gravity that dramatically? Who knew? The next thing you know, they're in orbit--Oldman took over and flew them there, because hey, he only ever blew up in the simulator but he knew the ship wouldn't blow up this time!--and Butterfield recovers quickly enough for zero-G snuggles with Robertson before returning to Earth and boarding a rocket back to Mars. I again laughed aloud when they showed the space plane (a carbon copy of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, really) orbiting the Earth backwards. Look, space launches go from west to east, harnessing the rotation of the Earth as an extra boost to get into orbit. Going the opposite direction means the spacecraft would have to overcome the Earth's rotational velocity in addition to reaching orbital velocity. The bar is set much higher, which is why nobody launches rockets east-to-west. For a little ship that supposedly can barely make orbit under the best of circumstances... well, maybe it's easier to orbit in the stratosphere?

What else can I rant about? Oh, yeah. The initial colonization mission launches in 2018, which is laughable and throws verisimilitude right out the window. The bulk of the story takes place about 18 years in the future, but everything looks exactly the same as it does today. Everyday technology hasn't advance, apart from a cool projector bracelet Butterfield wears and omniscient iPads which let Oldman spy on Butterfield and Robertson even when Oldman doesn't actually know where they are. Carla Gugino is given little to do as a veteran astronaut/proxy mother to Butterfield beyond expressing worry and frustration. But she gets off better than the other astronauts, none of whom are given names or dialogue, much less personalities. The most offensive element of the film comes in the aftermath of Butterfield's birth, following the death of his chirpy, can-do astronaut mother, Sarah Elliot. Over and over again it's hammered home that "She was irresponsible," "She jeopardized the mission," "I can't believe how selfish and irresponsible she was." Over and over she's blamed for the pregnancy, to the point where he death comes off as a 19th century morality play, that she got what she deserved because she dared to have sex. There is nothing from her perspective given--that her contraception failed (hey, even pills and implants have a failure rate) or some other extenuating circumstance was at play. No, the party line is that she was bad, period. This is particularly troublesome at the end of the film, when it's revealed that Oldman is actually Butterfield's father--a cheap bit of information withheld from the audience until the appropriately-cliched reveal. Actually sharing that information have negated Butterfield's entire road trip to find his father, so the awful script kept it secret. Worse that that, however, is the fact that Oldman is the loudest of the chorus condemning Astronaut Elliot for her "irresponsible behavior" even though he knows that it was he who knocked her up the night before the mission, or whatever. I just... ugh.

Seriously, there is just so much wrong with this movie I'm exhausted just thinking about it. The screenwriter, Allan Loeb, is responsible for the recent turkey Collateral Beauty as well as other cinematic masterpieces such as Here Comes the Boom, The Switch and Just Go With It, so I guess the awfulness of The Space Between Us shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Still, this has all the markings of a prestige picture, where the writer of low-brow fare cuts loose and shows what he's really capable of. Too bad he couldn't be bothered to put in the effort to do actual research, when pulling ideas out of his ass is so much easier.

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