Love and a Red Planet: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 1)
by Dwayne A. Day
|Has Mars-themed entertainment been liberated of some of its prior constraints and is it evolving in new ways, or is it still beholden to many of the standard tropes we’ve seen in numerous other movies?|
The Space Between Us is a teen romance movie that starts on Mars, but primarily takes place on Earth. Back in May, an extended trailer for the film was shown at the Humans to Mars (H2M) summit in Washington, DC, and the reception there was positive, with a number of people remarking that the film looked better than Mars enthusiasts would normally expect. The film was originally scheduled for an August release, but did well enough with test audiences that the studio bumped it back to mid-December where studio execs hope that it will garner a bigger box office before the latest delay to February. I was lucky enough to get an advance screening a few weeks ago. It is common now for movie trailers to give away many, if not most, of a movie’s major plot points, and this film is no exception. If you watch even one of the several trailers available on YouTube, you’ll have seen almost all of the key details of the movie, with only a few parts of the last act left out. Nevertheless, if you want a completely spoiler-free experience, stop reading now.
The movie starts with preparations at Kennedy Space Center for launch of the first human mission to Mars, which will also be the first effort to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet. The mission is a result of a public-private partnership. Billionaire Nathaniel Shepherd, played by Gary Oldman, has sponsored the Genesis mission that will launch six people to Mars, one woman and five men. NASA is providing hardware and personnel and logistical support, but the private company is apparently paying for most of the effort. It’s not clear exactly how this works, but NASA’s logo appears numerous times throughout the movie as does the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Launch System, and NASA facilities. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft also shows up, but while a space capsule that looks similar to the Dragon 2 plays a role in the plot, there is no mention of SpaceX. Although NASA did not pay for product placement, Volvo clearly did, even if it is doubtful that the movie’s target demographic really wants to drive what many people consider one of the un-sexiest car brands on Earth. Apple also paid to have their computers and phones appear throughout the movie.
At a pre-launch reception, Shepherd gives a rather clichéd speech about Mars being the destiny of mankind and ready for human settlement, and then introduces the star astronaut, Sarah Elliot, who also says a few quasi-inspirational words and smiles a lot. The crew hops in their rocket, docks with a Mars spacecraft already in orbit, and heads off to Mars. But we soon find out that Sarah Elliot is pregnant. The crew lands on Mars and somehow she still manages to fit into a spacesuit and make it into the habitation module. Elliot gives birth on Mars… and promptly dies. Meanwhile back on Earth, the Genesis team, with NASA’s collusion, decides to conceal the baby’s birth and to keep him on Mars. Shepherd is the biggest advocate for covering the whole thing up, arguing that not only would it wreck their plans, but that the child could never survive on Earth because his bones and organs could not handle the gravity. We also find out that the landing occurred in 2018, although why the director didn’t choose to pick a date a little farther in the future is unclear.
|The film has many similarities to Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Although The Space Between Us was undoubtedly influenced by Heinlein’s story, it never gets as weird.|
The film then jumps to sixteen years later and we are introduced to Gardner Elliott, played by Asa Butterfield (who we last saw in space in Ender’s Game, battling aliens as the title character.) Gardner is now a precocious teenager on Mars whose only friend is a robot, and who has a somewhat chilly relationship with a female astronaut named Kendra (Carla Gugino) who serves as sort of a surrogate mother for him, but has only been on Mars for about five years. Rather bizarrely, although the Mars habitat, nicknamed “West Texas,” now has more people, Gardner is never shown talking or interacting with anybody other than Kendra. It is best to not think about that too much, otherwise you might ask what about the five male astronauts who were stuck with changing his diapers, feeding him, teaching him to walk and talk, and why he has no relationship with any of them. Apparently Gardner never bonded with anybody who knew him as a child. This would probably leave any child emotionally scarred, but Gardner is depicted as a slightly rebellious and very smart teenager, not someone who might puncture the pressure wall and kill everybody in the settlement because he grew up without a mother and father. One of his acts of rebellion involves driving out to his mother’s gravesite and flipping his dune buggy and nearly killing himself.
What Kendra and the other people involved in the Mars program do not know is that Gardner has been communicating in secret with a teenage girl named Tulsa, who lives in Colorado. We see him text messaging her, apparently every day at a certain time—no evidence of any pesky time delay between the two planets. Tulsa is played by actress Britt Robertson, and she has been bouncing between foster families her entire life and currently lives with a foster father who crop-dusts farms for a living, but lately has been drinking himself into oblivion. Tulsa is counting the days until she turns eighteen and can legally escape the foster care system. She is independent, and also happens to know how to fly, but she has a deeply cynical view of life. Gardner has told her that he lives in New York City and has a rare disease that prevents him from going outside.
Back on Earth, the Genesis team decides that it is time to bring Gardner back to Earth, over the objections of Nathaniel Shepherd. Ever since Sarah Elliot’s death Shepherd has pretty much abandoned the project, living as a wealthy recluse unable to travel to space himself due to a health condition. Gardner undergoes an operation on Mars to strengthen his bone structure, and then he and Kendra head back to Earth.
Once back on Earth, Gardner is quarantined, ostensibly to protect him from Earthly germs, but also apparently to keep his existence quiet. He doesn’t like this and escapes, heading off on a bus from Florida to Colorado to meet up with Tulsa.
The film has many similarities to Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In that classic story a human born on Mars travels to Earth and is puzzled by human customs, eventually founding his own church. Although The Space Between Us was undoubtedly influenced by Heinlein’s story, it never gets as weird, or tries to explore weighty subjects of culture, philosophy, morality, and religion.
|Parts of the movie were filmed at Spaceport America, the sprawling complex in the New Mexico desert that cost that state’s taxpayers a lot of money. New Mexican residents may be dismayed to see that even twenty years from now Virgin Galactic is not flying from there.|
Asa Butterfield is tall and skinny, and does a pretty good job playing an awkward teenager who is slowly adapting to Earth’s gravity. He has an equally hard time adapting to Earth’s social norms, and has a tendency to blurt out what is on his mind without hesitation. When he reaches Tulsa he startles her, and receives a rather hostile reception from the girl who feels he ignored her for nearly a year. He cannot tell her that he was out of communication because he was flying back from Mars. Tulsa has no reason to trust Gardner, but he is sufficiently weird and disarming that she does not immediately tell him to get lost.
In the meantime, Kendra and Shepherd have set off in pursuit of their wayward Martian teenager, concerned that Earth’s gravity will kill him. They track him to Tulsa’s farm. The teenagers flee, first in an airplane and then a succession of stolen vehicles. They head off in search of Gardner’s father based only on a couple of clues he managed to gather from his mother’s possessions. Robertson and Butterfield have good chemistry together, although Robertson is seven years older than Butterfield, and is not totally convincing as a teenager. Gardner is goofy and often clueless, and Tulsa is bitter and walled off from the world. But his nerdy charm and honesty manages to break through her tough exterior, although she does not believe his story about being born on Mars and almost abandons him mid-journey when he tells her. But Gardner has a ticking time bomb: his heart is struggling with Earth’s gravity.
Although ostensibly set in the year 2035, there are no discernible differences between that time and today: people drive the same cars and use the same Apple products and shop in the same big box stores that you see every day. There is exactly one self-driving car in the movie (the aforementioned Volvo), and no other effort to make the future look any different than 2015 when it was filmed. As I watched the movie I had the creeping suspicion that budget limited the production at a number of points: for instance, a number of actors who appear on screen but say nothing. Parts of the movie were filmed at Spaceport America, the sprawling complex in the New Mexico desert that cost that state’s taxpayers a lot of money. New Mexican residents may be dismayed to see that even twenty years from now Virgin Galactic is not flying from there.
The middle part of the movie, with the two teenagers on their quest for Gardner’s father, was reasonably enjoyable. But I attended the free screening with a couple of colleagues—a guy my age, and a younger woman, none of us the movie’s target demographic—and they both scoffed and/or squirmed at various aspects of the plot. One of them couldn’t get past the movie’s numerous plot holes, and another had problems with an unethical relationship involving a couple of the characters. Most space enthusiasts will probably take issue with the film’s final act, which requires a major suspension of disbelief and in several ways contradicts the rest of the story. There is no way to discuss these issues without spoiling key plot points, but the trailers already give some of that away.
A scene from the movie The Space Between Us. (credit: STX Entertainment)
What does this fictional depiction of the settlement of Mars say about how Mars is being portrayed to an audience beyond space enthusiasts? Probably not much. The Mars setting for The Space Between Us is not fundamental to the overall story. This is a love story set on Earth, not on Mars, and the exploration or settlement of a new world does not factor into the characters’ actions or thoughts. This could have easily been a film about a sick teenage boy on the run with the girl he loves set entirely in the present day and with no reference to Mars at all. Among the film’s influences is the 2014 movie The Fault in Our Stars, about teenagers struggling with potentially fatal illnesses, and growing up way sooner than they should have to. The Mars setting is not much more than the cause of Gardner’s illness, and a temporary setting.
|In a more ambitious movie we might be left with the disturbing conclusion that Gardner is a young man who cannot be either fully of Mars or of Earth. But the film never really explores that premise and never aspires to be much more than a teenage love story that fleetingly uses Mars as a backdrop.|
Not every movie has to have a larger message—a film can simply be entertainment. But one of the disappointing things about The Space Between Us is that it touches on several themes with great potential that it never really develops. For instance, Gardner is amazed at many of the things he sees on Earth that Tulsa takes for granted. Usually these things are shown as a montage accompanied by an incessantly annoying soundtrack. But his amazement at this new world is never more than one of Gardner’s personality quirks, rather than an opportunity to address larger philosophical themes about appreciating what you have in life, or embracing the beauty of the Earth. The film’s marketing effort asks the audience to tweet their favorite thing about Earth, implying that one of the film’s themes is that you should love the world you inhabit. But that message is never fully developed, and is largely abandoned by the film’s third act. And as a friend of mine quipped, his favorite thing about Earth is air, which Mars lacks.
At one point the teenagers are sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I kept waiting for Gardner to make the obvious comparison to Mars, to say something about beauty and nature and how the lives of two people in love fit into the larger universe. But he does not, and one of the natural wonders of the world serves primarily as a pretty backdrop. At another point Gardner is overwhelmed with the artificiality of Las Vegas, which he finds disturbing. But that observation is also quickly forgotten as Gardner promptly collapses from his weakened heart. He does not speak about where he is from much at all throughout the movie, and Tulsa doesn’t ask. Gardner does not really love or hate Mars; Mars is simply the push that sets the plot in motion, and serves no greater symbolic or thematic purpose.
One of the messages that has emerged in several recent movies involving human spaceflight such as Wall-E, Gravity, and Elysium, is that spreading humanity into space is a mistake, that spaceflight is dangerous and ultimately dehumanizing, or is an escape from addressing problems on Earth (see “Life in space is impossible”, The Space Review, May 19, 2014). These movies argue, some more effectively than others, that their characters need to come back to Earth in order to be truly alive. The Space Between Us in some ways echoes that message: Gardner only finds love when he travels to Earth. But the message is undercut by the fact that the Earth is also killing him. In a more ambitious movie we might be left with the disturbing conclusion that Gardner is a young man who cannot be either fully of Mars or of Earth. But the film never really explores that premise and never aspires to be much more than a teenage love story that fleetingly uses Mars as a backdrop. It is trapped in the conventions of the love story genre, and thus never really flies.