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A scene from the movie The Space Between Us, a failure at the box office earlier this year. (credit: STX Entertainment)

The fault in our Mars: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 4)

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Mars seems to have left the zeitgeist a bit. For several years it was gaining more and more attention in the media, culture, and popular entertainment. There was Mars One, Elon Musk’s Mars proselytizing, the hit movie The Martian, and National Geographic Channel’s six-part Mars miniseries. That cultural heat has cooled in the past few months. SpaceX has, unsurprisingly, delayed the launch of its Red Dragon mission, and Elon Musk has most recently suggested that he could use one of his company’s vehicles to send a couple of wealthy adventurers out past the Moon. Then again, later this month the movie Life features a deadly Mars organism that starts killing astronauts and threatens humanity, so perhaps this isn’t a lull at all and things are looking up?

Mars seems to have left the zeitgeist a bit. For several years it was gaining more and more attention in the media, culture, and popular entertainment.That cultural heat has cooled in the past few months.

The Space Between Us sought to capitalize on the Mars hype. The film was originally scheduled for an August 2016 release, then slipped to December apparently because it had done well in front of test audiences. It was even shown to an exclusive (but quite small) audience in Washington, DC, in November only a few weeks before its scheduled premiere. But then—as if the studio heads sensed that Mars was losing its luster, or simply did not want to go head-to-head against Rogue One—the premiere date was delayed. The Space Between Us finally debuted on February 3 to mostly middling reviews. It only made $7.9 million at the box office, coming in behind such films as Rock Dog and A Cure for Wellness. The film had a reported $30 million budget. Figure that advertising cost at least that amount, and clearly The Space Between Us is a financial failure for the studio. Now that it is out of the theaters it will show up on streaming services soon. If you are planning to watch the movie and do not want it spoiled, stop reading now.

After the special showing in Washington, I discussed the movie on The Space Review, exploring the film’s place in the larger culture of Mars-themed entertainment (see “Love and a Red Planet: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 1)”, The Space Review, November 28, 2016). Because so much of the film’s plot had already been given away in the trailers, I felt comfortable describing everything except the film’s final act, even though that too was partly revealed in a TV commercial.

To briefly recap: The Space Between Us is about the first person born on Mars, a boy named Gardner Elliott, whose mother Sarah—the head of the first human mission to colonize Mars—dies soon after giving birth to him. The film then jumps fifteen years later to the early 2030s where the teenage Gardner, played by Asa Butterfield, is doing what boys do: sneaking out, wrecking the car, and trying to start a relationship with a teenage girl. The only problem is that the girl, named Tulsa, played by the fetching Britt Robertson, is back on Earth. Distance doesn’t prevent them from texting in real-time, so it should not prevent them from meeting and falling in love. Eventually Gardner insists on going to Earth and his minders agree and fit him with an enhanced bone structure. He flies back, accompanied by an astronaut named Kendra, played by Carla Gugino, who has become sort of a surrogate mother to him. He escapes confinement and heads off to meet up with Tulsa, who does not believe his born-on-Mars story (no surprise there: most girls I knew in high school thought I was from another planet and were still unimpressed.) Gardner and Tulsa set off in search of Gardner’s father, while Kendra and the billionaire financier of the Mars mission, Shepherd, played by Gary Oldman who is clearly slumming here, try to catch him.

Gardner has very little information to lead him on his quest, mainly a video of his mother with another man her age at a coastal location. He's grabbed a screenshot of her and the man, who he thinks is his father, and found evidence that his parents may have been married by a Native American shaman at the Grand Canyon. The kids manage to find the shaman and he looks up the more-than-17-year-old check the couple used to pay for the ceremony. He finds it on a computer identical to the 2012 iMac I'm typing this on, so either Apple completely gave up on styling their computers, or this shaman has been using the same machine for 20 years and has great tech support.

The kids reach Las Vegas on their way to find Gardner’s father and Gardner collapses because his heart has enlarged in Earth's gravity. Tulsa leaves him at a hospital where she sees a scan of his enhanced bone structure and realizes that he has been telling her the truth about being born on Mars. Even that scene was in one of the trailers, so clearly the studio had no problem with giving most of the story away in an effort to bring people into the theater.

Tulsa soon comes back for him at the hospital and steals yet another car (her specialty) and they head to the Pacific coast. Although it is not identified by name, they are clearly at or near Carmel-by-the-Sea south of Big Sur, a spectacular stretch of California. They find the house and the man and confront him. Gardner tells him that he’s his father. The man tells Gardner that Sarah Elliott was actually his sister—he’s Gardner’s uncle, not his father. Gardner then goes down to the ocean, despondent and very ill, and falls into the water, possibly trying to kill himself. Tulsa struggles to pull him out and just then Shepherd shows up and lifts Gardner out of the water and tells him that he is actually Gardner’s father.

The Space Between Us is harmless fluff, a lightweight teen romance that nobody will mistake for a deep and insightful film.

I'm usually very good at seeing these kinds of things in movies, but I'll admit that I was surprised by that revelation (although, to give myself credit, when I saw Shepherd flying a Dream Chaser simulator earlier in the movie I knew that was some obvious foreshadowing). Perhaps I was blinded a bit by the fact that Gary Oldman is 58 and the actress who played Sarah Elliott is 31 (too young to be the astronaut commander, I thought). I also saw the film with a woman in her twenties and she said that this revelation really creeped her out, because it meant that the billionaire head of the space project was having a relationship with a woman half his age whom he selected to run the mission. Lots of movie relationships are rather icky if you think about them too much. Their story was weakened by the fact that we never got a sense of why Sarah and Shepherd ever fell in love and got married, and then agreed that Sarah would head off to Mars, presumably for the rest of her life.

Throughout the movie Shepherd was opposed to Gardner’s trip to Earth. Was this because he was covering up something shameful from his past, or because he was genuinely concerned that Earth gravity would kill the boy? Shepherd was ultimately right, after all, and Gardner could not survive on Earth. But there’s enough ambiguity to leave open the possibility that Shepherd may not only have been romantically and sexually involved with a young woman who worked for him, but also desperately wanted to cover up his culpability. Great role model material for Gardner.

Shepherd and Kendra put Gardner in an ambulance, then take him to a military base where a Dream Chaser spacecraft is sitting on a runway. (Honestly, at this point in the movie I muttered out loud, “You gotta be kidding me…”) They all hop in the spaceplane—Tulsa as well—and fly up into the atmosphere. This is clearly one of the points in the film (there are several) where physics and logic take a holiday. With Gardner’s condition deteriorating, Shepherd says something like, “We have to get him into the stratosphere.” The kids are lying on a bench in the voluminous spacecraft interior, not strapped into acceleration couches. Shepherd says, “We need to go higher,” and the pilot responds that he is not authorized to do that. Shepherd then takes over the spacecraft, fires the rockets, and they fly into space. Everybody starts floating, Gardner magically recovers, and the two kids kiss.

Moments later we see the Dream Chaser flying over Florida from East to West. If you think that out, it’s totally implausible that they launched west out of California and flew over Florida minutes later. But the implausibilities have really piled up at this point in the movie: there was no Atlas rocket under the Dream Chaser; Shepherd took command over what is apparently a government spacecraft; and, most importantly, somehow a kid with a dangerously enlarged and weakened heart is not killed during the acceleration needed to get him into space, or the reentry forces when he returns.

Back on Earth Gardner tells Tulsa that he knows he cannot survive here and must return to Mars (apparently artificial hearts still don’t exist in the 2030s.) Then he and Shepherd launch on an SLS rocket back to Mars, the second bout of g-forces no greater threat to his feeble heart than the first. We see dad and son walking around the enlarged space settlement on Mars in spacesuits, a happy family ready to build a new home on the fourth rock from the Sun.

The film then returns to Earth where we see Tulsa staying in some kind of Christian halfway house. Kendra shows up and says that she is retired as an astronaut and now owns a ranch in Colorado. She explains that she is in charge of NASA astronaut training and invites Tulsa to come live with her. The scene is admittedly touching—Kendra is adopting a new kid after losing Gardner to Mars. And it is one of the few scenes where Carla Gugino actually shows some real emotion after both she and Gary Oldman mostly phoned in their performances. It doesn’t make too much sense if you consider that she only met Tulsa when she and Shepherd rescued Gardner, so she barely knows the girl.

We should hope that even bad space travel films do well at the box office because their success improves the chances that good movies about space travel will get funded.

One of the final shots is Tulsa training at the astronaut facility, the implication is that she is preparing to go to Mars and be with Gardner. Of course, she’s not a doctor or a biologist or engineer or anybody who would actually be needed on Mars. She’s an 18-year-old who may not even have a high-school diploma and considering all the cars she stole, probably has a pretty substantial criminal record. But the two kids are in love, and love is all you need, right?

The Space Between Us is harmless fluff, a lightweight teen romance that nobody will mistake for a deep and insightful film. Somewhat amusingly as I walked into the theater I joked with the woman I saw the film with that it better have a helicopter chase or I would be disappointed. Surprisingly, it did have a helicopter chase, and I was still disappointed. But I’m not the target demographic for the movie either. The movie lacked courage. It would have been much more powerful and moving if Gardner had died on the beach after Shepherd tried to save him. It certainly would have made more sense.

Perhaps that happened in an early draft of the script. If you’ve watched enough movies with director's commentaries you learn that sometimes happy endings are tagged onto films after early test screenings: somebody complains that Hamlet isn’t exactly a fun story, and it would be nicer if the prince wasn’t a brooding wanker and if everybody didn’t all die at the end, and suddenly Shakespeare is back at his keyboard doing rewrites. The Space Between Us is the kind of movie where everybody gets a happy ending: Gardner gets the dad he never knew, Kendra gets a surrogate daughter, and you are supposed to imagine Tulsa eventually being reunited with Gardner on Mars, even though in reality she has probably spent no more than a couple of weeks with him in person. The shot of her in astronaut training seems like it was added so that we can picture the two lovebirds reunited. If that doesn’t happen, Gardner is going to be a depressed and angry young man back on Mars, planting potatoes and putting lipstick and fake eyelashes on his robot.

It is pointless to wish that The Space Between Us had been a different and more ambitious movie—the story made it over the low bar it set out for. But it did touch on some issues that could form the basis for future more sophisticated movies about humans on Mars. The effects that gravity and other environmental factors could have on human reproduction and development raise some interesting ethical and other considerations and could make for a thought-provoking story. Even though The Martian was primarily a straightforward movie about human survival, it also touched obliquely on Mark Watney’s loneliness. Mars can certainly serve as a backdrop for a range of human stories, but here it simply set the plot in motion and served no deeper purpose.

We should hope that even bad space travel films do well at the box office because their success improves the chances that good movies about space travel will get funded. The Space Between Us was not a financial success, but that is much more the failure of a teen romance movie than the failure of a space travel movie. Mars is a framing device, appearing at the beginning and the end of the film; Mars is not the setting or the challenge. Ultimately, the Red Planet is both the cause and the cure for Gardner’s ailment, but it cannot bridge the empty space that fills his heart.