There's a gap in the market, as far as young adult scifi movies go, and The Space Between Us almost fills it. Teen scifi is suffused with post-apocalyptic tales, in which the only way to save humanity is to overcome social norms — usually made painfully obvious in a sorting ceremony that is a veiled rip-off of Harry Potter — by the plucky protagonist revolutionizing their teenagers against a corrupt adult authority. What we don't get, and more's the pity, are other types of scifi stories with young protagonists: Optimistic, space-based tales of strangers in strange lands. The Space Between Us is such a story, and it's a real breath of fresh air in what has become a stale genre — or it would be, if it realized it's a young adult movie.
A Strong Story With A Weak Start
There are many things to love about The Space Between Us: Its young protagonists are vivacious and endearing, the concept of aliens and alienation is explored well, and most of the movie is pure optimistic fun. But none of this is apparent in the first 15 minutes or so.
The beginning of The Space Between Us feels more like a straightforward astronaut story like The Martian and Arrival. As Gary Oldman's curiously-accented Nathaniel Shepherd gives an impassioned speech introducing the project that will soon go horribly wrong thanks to a silly woman's "mistake", we're given the impression that this movie is aimed at adults. This makes the majority of the film, which is a road-trip style love story between two alienated weirdos, seem jarring. Not only that, but the beginning is a bit dull, as it plods through the set-up: Astronauts go to Mars, one has a baby, it's all covered up, etc.
The first quarter of the film would have benefited from showing us the young protagonists right away. Not only would it have been immediately engaging to see Gardner leaping around in his natural Mars environment, this would also have provided us with much-needed framing for the bulk of the story. As it is, we have no idea how Tulsa and Gardner even met online (Reddit? Tumblr? A random friend request on Facebook?) and their relationship, although undeniably lovely and achingly romantic, lacked background. And because we only caught the briefest of glimpses at Gardner's life on Mars, the final twist at the film's conclusion feels more like a prison sentence than a solution.
Then there's the uncomfortable framing of Gardner's birth — or rather, his mother's pregnancy — as a mistake. Sarah Elliot is described several times as "behaving irresponsibly" because she dared to have sex before she left Earth. It's obvious that her pregnancy was an accident, so unless she deliberately didn't use protection that's what this becomes: Sarah is being blamed for having sex. Yikes. The later revelation that Gardner's father is actually Nathaniel only makes this whole thing even more aggravating, because he was the one to heap all the responsibility on Sarah — and of course, he never says he made a mistake.
The Space Between Us Needs To Embrace The YA Genre
Which brings us to the crux of the issue — The Space Between Us can't work out if it's an adult genre-flick, or a young adult romp. The strongest moments in the movie are all focused on Gardner and Tulsa, as the two are both compelling characters with excellent chemistry who represent the different ways teenagers can feel totally isolated. There's a symmetrical harmony in their lives: Gardner was raised by people who didn't want him, abandoned Tulsa has been subject to neglect and exploitation from foster homes.
So when they finally, finally, meet and actually get out in the world to have their shared adventure, that's when the movie really gets going. Asa Butterfield is perfect as the Martian exploring Earth for the first time: Gardner's unfamiliarity with his environment conveys just how alien he really is, and his delight at discovering simple things like rain is contagious. Not to mention, there's an interesting exploration of how poor health can hamper a person's ability to enjoy their life — despite his debilitating conditions, Gardner doesn't let this hold him back, making for an uplifting story. As Gardner's cynical counterpart, Britt Robertson nonetheless gives Tulsa an endearing vulnerability that makes their love story believable.
The Space Between Us has all the ingredients to make a great young adult scifi movie, and yet it doesn't quite use them in the right way. As an adult watching these teens fall in love, I was aware this story wasn't really for me, but The Space Between Us still doesn't feel like a young adult flick, probably because of the initial focus on Nathaniel's guilt. Which is a shame, as this film had the opportunity to reinvent the YA genre by introducing a different kind of scifi concept.
Nonetheless, the movie is fun — even if it does feel somewhat like the first draft of a script with great potential — and I can only hope that The Space Between Us really does spark a young adult scifi revolution... because the genre certainly needs some fresh ideas.
Tell us in the comments: Would you like to see more diverse scifi movies aimed at young adults?