Space – the final YA-romance frontier. Having already used vampirism, lycanthropy, terminal diseases, time travel, dystopic futures and a televised to-the-death competition as obstacles to young love, the genre would seem to have nowhere left to go – at which point the makers of this sci-fi tearjerker looked to the cosmos and thought, "A-ha!" The fault is not in our stars, people. The fault is our stars.
Gardner (Asa Butterfield) is a typical 16-year-old brainiac, the kind who spends his days tinkering in robotics, endlessly re-watching Wings of Desire and DM-ing with his female misfit counterpart. Her name is Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a troubled teen who's been bounced around foster homes and rides a motorcycle. They seem to have a deep connection, these two, but there's a slight catch: She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and he, well ... he lives on Mars. Specifically, the first manned colony set up on the red planet, as he's the offspring of an astronaut who discovered she was pregnant after take-off and died during childbirth. Gardner can never come back to Earth, he's told, because his enlarged heart (metaphor alert!) would risk bursting in our atmosphere.
But Mars needs girlfriends, so one surgery, several training montages and one interstellar flight later, he and his single-female-scientist guardian (Carla Gugino) find themselves back on our big blue marble. The billionaire behind the expedition (Gary Oldman, looking conspicuously like Richard Branson) wants to study the effects of outer-space coming-of-age on our young hero; he may have a few hidden reasons to interrogate the boy as well. All Gardner wants, however, is to find his father, who he's seen on Mom's old "virtual visit" footage. That, and to meet Tulsa in person. So he slips out of his holding cell and heads west. Soon, the couple are hitting the road and the authorities are hot on their trail.
From here, The Space Between Us merely becomes a matter of checking plus or minus boxes on a list. The various pros: Butterfield's ability to give good awkwardness (his shambling, stiff-limbed walk, due to Earth's gravity having a stronger pull than his home planet, is inspired); Robertson, who proves here that her charismatic turn in Tomorrowland was no fluke and that she's got screen presence to spare; and cinematographer Barry Peterson's ability to film both stratospheric views and terrestrial landscapes with a genuine sense of awe – as if, like Gardner, we're seeing Earth's natural wonders for the very first time. He also has a knack for taking disparate elements and somehow dropping in a gobsmacking visual when you least expect it; when it comes to capturing the rush of being smitten, you will believe that so much depends upon a blue dress and a Yamaha keyboard in a Costco.
The cons are, alas, almost everything else, and while director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones, Serendipity) can functionally guide his cast through their derring-do and dewy-eyed paces, neither he nor screenwriter Allan Loeb can steer the whole endeavour out of Clichéville U.S.A. By the time you get to the money shot of two lovers kissing in zero gravity, you'll either be deep in this movie's pocket or have fallen into a diabetic coma. There's virtually no in-between.