Friday, February 3, 2017

The Space Between Us: Keep it far, far away

The Space Between Us (2017) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for minor sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

This film isn’t merely bad; it’s impressively, defiantly awful.

The silliest TV soap operas aren’t this eye-rollingly overwrought.

With Genesis corporate guards and lackeys hot on their heels, Gardner (Asa Butterfield)
manages an improbable escape in a rickety crop-duster piloted by his newly introduced
best friend, Tulsa (Britt Robertson). One has to wonder why an ancient biplane still would
be used for such agricultural work, at a point in the future when space missions are
hopping back and forth to Mars.
The acting is wildly uneven. The writing is dreadful. The direction is beyond clumsy. The use of music — and the score itself — are thunderously flamboyant. The applications of science — this is, after all, a futuristic adventure — are repeatedly, recognizably faulty.

I’ve never seen a film with such a brazen display of grandiosity, as if every artificially portentous, laughably embroidered line of dialog deserved to be chiseled as the 11th Commandment.

My mental warning klaxon began shrieking 30 seconds into the very first scene: a press conference led by Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), founder of Genesis Space Technologies, who intends to solve Earth’s many geological, climate-induced and socio-political crises by establishing a human settlement on Mars. (As if spending gazillions to eventually put a few dozen people on Mars would mitigate such issues?)

Oldman, in by far the worst performance of his lengthy career, puts such pompous weight onto each syllable, that I’d not have been surprised if a celestial choir had descended from the heavens.

Shepherd introduces the six-person crew, led by mission head Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery); they field a few questions and then board the rocket that whisks them to the orbiting Genesis Magellan-61 spacecraft, for their months-long journey to the Red Planet.

Shortly into this trip, Sarah is discovered to be pregnant.

We pause, for the first of many reality checks:

Head of the mission, the public-relations fate of an entire corporation on her shoulders, and Sarah imprudently has unprotected sex shortly before she departs for Mars? Given that she’s the only woman in the crew, that’s not merely narratively stupid; it’s a grossly insulting and sexist contrivance on the part of scripters Allan Loeb, Stewart Schill and Richard Barton Lewis. And it’s merely the first of countless, groaningly awful plot hiccups.

Please, somebody: Take away their keyboards before they commit writing again.

To continue...

The team reaches Mars, sets up an impressively large and fully functional habitat in record time — it’s simply there, one moment to the next, like a fait accompli — and then Sarah dies in childbirth. Flash-forward 16 years later, and the boy has grown into a strapping teenager: Gardner (Asa Butterfield), who has a flair for computers, gadgets and all things technical. No surprise there; he was raised by scientists.

We can but ponder how the infant was kept alive, during his first few years, and under such harsh — and uncharted — conditions. The script simply doesn’t go there.

The habitat has grown, as has its population; Genesis has been rotating astronauts on a regular basis. Current mission engineer Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) has become something of an adoptive parent for Gardner, trying to keep his rebellious streak in check ... such as breaking 17 layers of essential safety protocol while taking a multi-million-dollar research buggy on a joy ride, and crashing it into a Martian sandbank.

Gosh, teenagers are so silly!

Back on Earth, Gardner’s very existence has been kept a classified secret by Shepherd and his high-level Genesis colleagues, all of them terrified that the resulting bad publicity might impair ongoing funding. The notion that a whole human being could be successfully concealed for so long, amid so many comings and goings, and photo/video feeds, is patently ludicrous. But, well, anyway...

Unbeknownst to all (Gardner assumes), for quite some time he has been enjoying online chats with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a Colorado-based high school girl. She’s street-smart and precocious, and has a chip on her shoulder the size of, well, Colorado: anger issues resulting from her having been shunted through various indifferent foster parents.

But wait, you say: Online chats? Instantaneous online chats, as if these two wild ’n’ crazy kids lived next door to each other?

Even grade-school students know better. Depending on planetary alignment, radio signals require between three and 21 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth. Goodness, we all were reminded of this quite recently, in 2015’s rigorously scientific The Martian. So, what: We’re supposed to believe in some sort of magic, warp-generating relay stations? (This issue actually crops up earlier, when Shepherd watches a “live” video feed as Sarah dies on the makeshift operating table.)

Moving on...

Gardner decides that he wants to meet Tulsa (who has no clue where he actually lives). Bad idea, Genesis doctors insist; the kid’s bones and circulatory system, conditioned to life on Mars, couldn’t handle Earth’s greater gravity pull. Well, whatever; this lame-brain script says it’s gotta happen, so it happens, thanks to implanted enhancements that strengthen Gardner’s limbs.

Somehow, despite the length of time required to prep for, endure and recover from this massively invasive surgical procedure, necessitating weeks (months?) of post-operative therapy, and the crucial exercises and building of physical stamina, followed by a seven-month trip to Earth ... Tulsa is still in the same high school classroom when Gardner finally reaches her.

Of course, he doesn’t land on her doorstep. No, his shuttle touches down at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (futuristically — and niftily — enhanced by production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli and visual effects supervisor Robert Bock). Gardner easily evades what we have to assume would be the world’s tightest security and monitoring technology — at which point our eyes, no longer able to roll, simply pop out of their sockets — and embarks on a road trip to Colorado.

Aside from meeting Tulsa, Gardner also wants to find his birth father, known only as a face in a short video found among Sarah’s personal effects.

Shepherd and Kendra — the latter having accompanied Gardner on his trip to Earth — are close behind, thanks to the availability of pervasive monitoring technology. Along the way, Shepherd constantly bellows, blathers and bloviates like a demented refugee from the nearest lunatic asylum. I’m surprised Oldman doesn’t foam at the mouth.

Oh, and it should be mentioned that there’s no evidence of any of the many environmental crises that Shepherd pontificates about, in this film’s opening sermon. Frankly, as Gardner takes a bus across the country, everything looks just peachy-keen beautiful.

There’s no need to go any further, although rest assured: The story continues to be relentlessly imbecilic. But wait, there’s more: All of these melodramatic contrivances are further overstated by Andrew Lockington’s laughably baroque, sturm und drang score, which is pumped at maximum volume by director Peter Chelsom, who apparently worried that Oldman’s performance was too dainty.

I see that Chelsom also was responsible for one of the previous decade’s worst comedies: the 2001 Warren Beatty/Charlton Heston/Diane Keaton/Goldie Hawn debacle, Town & Country. I’m not surprised.

Lockington’s overblown orchestral underscore is bad enough; the randomly inserted pop and folk tunes, once Gardner gets to Earth, are even worse. These mostly gawpy songs aren’t merely intrusive; they’re ineptly placed. They frequently elicited derisive — and well-deserved — snickers from Wednesday evening’s sparse preview audience.

Which, by the way, also giggled mercilessly at Oldman’s appalling behavior.

Butterfield, Robertson and Gugino, bless their hearts, try hard to deliver sincere performances; Butterfield’s wide-eyed innocence, as Gardner takes in Earth’s various surprises — such as dogs and horses — is sweetly endearing. These three actors save this mess from full-blown turkeydom.

Which still is damning with very faint praise. The writing was on the wall last summer, when this film’s original mid-August release was postponed to mid-December, and then bumped again to today’s mid-winter dumping ground. The Space Between Us is a pathetic embarrassment for all concerned, and particularly disappointing for sci-fi fans, who deserve much better.

A pox on everybody involved.

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