Funny how things change. When Hollywood first began making science-fiction films, Mars was a place to be feared. Think of 1953's Invaders From Mars or 1959's The Angry Red Planet. I mean, really – angry red planet? Sure, Mars could use some water, but what it needed was a better PR firm.
But now, because Earthlings have been busy trashing their own world, Mars is being presented as a saviour frontier and a place for a fresh start. A stranded engineer in The Martian grows vegetables on the arid planet and faster than Matt Damon can say, "How do you like them potatoes?" Mars doesn't seem like such a bad place anymore.
Which brings us to The Space Between Us, the latest drama set on the not-so-angry-after-all red planet. A shameless pastiche of Starman's alien-on-Earth sci-fi, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble's medical pathos and any number of young-lovers-on-the-run stories, The Space Between Us may set back the Earth-Mars relationship light years.
Stunningly sentimental, the film involves the first human born on Mars and his ill-fated trip to Earth. The teenaged boy is on a mission to find a father he never knew, but the clock is ticking. The Earth's atmosphere is too heavy for his organs; the melodrama is suffocating the movie. Medically, in the simplest terms, the boy's heart is too big. The same could be said for the film.
Which might not be a bad thing for its box-office performance. Young audiences could be over the moon with the ultra-adventurous romance of a space boy and his interstellar Snapchat girlfriend – a virginal pairing literally star-crossed.
The Space Between Us is, at its core, about family and personal isolation. Directed by the Lancashire native Peter Chelsom, it begins on the Mars as we know it, which is to say the Mars of The Martian. Perhaps it is a few years past that future, because an entrepreneurial engineer played by Gary Oldham – with a distinct whiff of Elon Musk – is ready to launch a mission not only to visit Mars, but to inhabit it.
The crew leader is a vibrant, telegenic woman who soon complicates the mission when it is learned – mid-flight – that she is pregnant. She gives birth to a boy, but she dies during the delivery. The baby is relatively healthy, but because of the weightless gestation his bones and organs are affected. For a variety of reasons, NASA decides to keep the boy a secret – his existence is classified information.
Fast forward and the baby is a teenager, played gamely by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender's Game). He's mischievous and lonely, with no parents and no one in the hermetically-sealed Mars compound his own age. One of the astronauts (played by Carla Gugino) serves as a mother figure.
Somehow – it's not explained how security precautions are bypassed – he secretly maintains a Skype-based relationship with a girl on Earth named Tulsa. Portrayed by the up-and-coming actress Britt Robertson, she's bright and beautiful, but also a loner and a budding misanthrope. An orphan, she's been passed along from foster home to foster home, because who would ever want to adopt a bright and beautiful girl like her?
The fun happens when hush-hush boy is allowed to go to Earth, where he manages to elude the authorities. (His unnatural ingenuity is always explained by someone saying, "Well, he was raised by scientists.") After he tracks down his girl Tulsa, the two set out to find the boy's father, with Oldham's character and others in hot (and implausibly inept) pursuit.
Out of his element in most every way, the boy's awkward physicality and wide-eyed astonishment is captured quite specially. Gangly and unused to gravity, the boy moves stiffly but with unbridled determination and quaint naivete. There's an anime quality to him: a human as an alien. And like the creature from E.T., he's unable to survive on the planet.
But if Earth is killing the boy, the gravity of the situation kills the film. The suffocating melodrama from Mars is too much to bear, and, by the time it's over, the space between the film and I can never be enough.