By: Kevin Jordan
Leeeeeeaving on a jet plane.
My immediate impression of The Space Between Us was it was cute, I guess. That might be the last nice thing I say about this film because I spent the last twenty-four hours realizing that it’s kind of bad. Then I looked up the current Rotten Tomatoes score and…oh. Oh no. 11%? It wasn’t that bad. Was it?
You should know that I had to choose between The Space Between Us and Rings and, even now, I think I picked the better movie. That 11% seems a little harsh for a movie that is a fairly benign love story trying to appeal to teenagers. I mean, so what if the science was shoddy and the plot was scattershot and the characters didn’t make much sense and nonsensical artistic decisions were made and Gary Oldman was overacting and…oh. Oh no.
(SPOILER ALERT. Let’s face it though – you aren’t going to go see a sappy, teenage, sci-fi, romance movie in early February, so read on, my friends.)
From the start, you know this movie isn’t really serious because of the way it handles the premise of “child born on Mars.” Rather than just starting with a child being born on Mars, the film goes out of its way to introduce you to the first astronauts going to Mars and the CEO, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), of the company sending them. That word “first” is key because the team leader, Janet Montgomery (Sarah Elliot), gets pregnant right before they leave Earth. It’s not the worst thing a movie has ever asked the audience to swallow, but do you really think the first astronaut to Mars is going to risk being scrubbed from the trip by having unprotected sex mere days (or even the previous night) before lift-off? The odds are much better that she’d be wearing the chastity belts from Mad Max: Fury Road (yes, I meant for that to be plural).
Suffice it to say, they find out she’s pregnant about two months into the trip to Mars and somehow had the foresight to pack an ultrasound machine. Huh, that’s weird. Anyway, Nathaniel decides to keep the kid a secret for fear that revealing him will kill their funding. This is patently absurd for so many reasons, not the least of which is they can’t turn the ship around. Yes, a trip to Mars is exciting for Earth’s population, but imagine how much attention you would get by announcing a child would be born? They had a ready-made Truman Show. When they get to the planet, Janet dies during childbirth, but it’s okay because they send a surrogate mother, Kendra (Carla Gugino), to take care of the child, a boy named Gardner (Asa Butterfield), whose name I am not making up.
You aren’t my real mom.
Speaking of names, the base on Mars is called East Texas. Are you kidding me?!! What sad, unimaginative writer came up with that turd?
Fast forward sixteen years and, with the help of Mars’ low gravity, Gardner has grown into a tall, lanky teenager. No, taller and lankier than usual teenagers. He’s also super smart and ridiculously bored, so he does what all bored geniuses do…instant messages with a friend. Seriously, he figures out how to bypass the communications security and starts Skyping with a high school girl, Tulsa (Brit Robertson), whose name I also did not make up.
Science note: for you science nerds, here’s an example of some of the terrible science exhibited in this film: there is no time delay in the conversations between Tulsa and Gardner, even though it takes between four and twenty-one minutes for light to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on their relative positions. Neil deGrasse Tyson just did a spit take.
After some Martian teenager shenanigans, the company decides to bring Gardner to Earth, but still won’t tell anybody about him because that would ruin the second half of the plot. After arriving on Earth and receiving a battery of medical tests, Gardner escapes from the compound using the old hide-in-the-back-of-a-truck maneuver, even though the compound had been put on lockdown. I guess lockdown means barely checking the back of a shipping truck and allowing it to leave before finding your secret Martian kid. Then, Gardner makes his way from Florida to Montrose, Colorado (don’t ask), finds Tulsa, and convinces her to help him find his father. The rest of this film is a combination of the father quest, the budding romance between Tulsa and Gardner, and Kendra and Nathaniel trying to recover Gardner before Gardner dies. Oh, didn’t I mention that? Rather than stick with the idea of keeping Gardner a secret from the world and using that as the figurative countdown clock, they throw in that Gardner’s heart is way too big and that Earth’s gravity is going to cause his heart to fail.
16 years trapped on Mars = A.I. gets invented.
Science note: I could not find any research pointing to whether or not a Martian human would have a larger heart than normal, but Earth’s gravity would cause heart issues in that the heart would have to pump much harder than it would have in Mars’ low gravity. It’s more likely the heart would be the same size, just weaker. Also, the movie takes the time to have its astronauts deal with his weak bones in specifics (they strengthen them artificially), but then has those same scientists not bother to check or even worry about his organs or heart? Remember, these same guys brought an ultrasound machine on a space mission.
Where this movie really goes off the rails is in the decision to make Gardner’s quest about finding his father. The fun parts of this movie are Gardner discovering and seeing things for the first time. Oceans, trees, dogs, horses, caterpillars, warmth from the sun. All are endearing moments that remind us of everything we take for granted, though in the most Disney of ways. This movie should have been about Gardner just wanting to explore Earth while simultaneously falling in love with Tulsa (and vice versa). Don’t get me wrong, the love story is a large part of the movie, but it’s always overshadowed by the quest. Ditching the trite father angle doesn’t change the movie. Gardner is still going to die (unbeknownst to Gardner), Kendra and Nathaniel are still trying to rescue him, and we still get the love story and exploring plot. But, now it feels more natural.
You know I grew up on Mars and this is where you bring me?
The kicker of the movie is the big reveal that explains a bunch of things while simultaneously wrecking the movie. I won’t give that away, but you’ll end up repeating the phrases “oh, that makes sense now” followed by “but then why didn’t…” It also creates a MacGuffin that wouldn’t have existed in my version of the film. And if that’s not enough, the movie commits one last trauma to the groin of science. Recall that Gardner is dying because of the gravitational effect on his heart? They solve this problem by strapping Gardner into Nathaniel’s personal rocket shuttle and blast out of Earth’s lower atmosphere. I’m no physicist, but if 1G was slowly tearing apart his heart, wouldn’t 11G’s liquefy it? You’re right – I’m thinking way too hard about this film.
Like I said, at first glance the movie is kind of cute, but it’s a movie you won’t want to watch more than once. Outside of Gardner, the characters are 1.5-dimensional, the plot can’t get out of its own way, and the attention to detail is spotty at best. But 11%? I guess.
Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and always use birth control before going to space.
By: Kevin Jordan
Full steam ahead.
If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney movies it’s that subtlety is not one of their strong suits. After watching Tomorrowland, it’s safe to say that tradition continues as the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. Incidentally, this movie is also calling the vast majority of humans blockheads with its Hugh Laurie-delivered message – “we’ve warned you about the iceberg, but instead of avoiding it, you steer right into it.” What is he talking about, you ask? Climate change, among other things, but let’s start at the beginning.
If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney, it’s the overarching idea of hope embedded in every Disney story and property. The concept of never losing hope isn’t unique to Disney, but not even the United States has been able to brand and market it as well as Disney (though twelve million immigrants might disagree with me on that). In case you are one of the six people who have never visited Disneyland, Tomorrowland is an area of Disneyland in which young children are scared shitless by riding Space Mountain. It’s also the area decrying that the future can be whatever you can imagine it to be (Disneyland literally refers to its designers as Imagineers); all you have to do is try. As great a message as that is for young people, life beat it out of their now-cynical parents long ago as those same parents simply wonder “how long is this line, anyway?”
(Some SPOILERS ahead and remember to keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.)
Tomorrowland attempts to bring meaning back to that message by applying it to a real problem – that the human race is actively trying to murder itself in many different ways. The film begins with Frank Walker (George Clooney) and a steampunk, digital countdown clock telling the camera a story while being interrupted by an eager, female voice arguing with him about how to tell the story. Frank starts over and we are taken back to the 1964 World’s Fair, where a very young Frank is showing his invention – a jetpack – to a judge (Hugh Laurie) at an invention competition. A young, freckled girl with eyes the size dinner plates who looks like she popped out of an animated Disney flick, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), takes an interest in Frank and in defiance of the judge, sneaks a special button to Frank and tells him to get on the boat leading to It’s a Small World. You read that correctly – the It’s a Small World ride ridiculed by every human since 1965.
(Note: my movie buddy swore that It’s a Small World was not at that particular fair, but a little research confirmed that it was indeed there and moved to Disneyland following the Fair. What I love about the inclusion of this factoid is that it highlights what people found fun in 1964, as it was one of the most heavily visited exhibits at the Fair.)
While inside the ride, a laser scans the button and Frank is whisked off to Tomorrowland, where a robot fixes his jetpack, Frank briefly experiences what being a cartoon in freefall feels like (while falling, he performs a bunch of silly actions and sightseeing), and comes to rest in front of that same British judge who turns out to be the governor of Tomorrowland, Governor Nix. Rather than letting us explore Tomorrowland with Frank, the film skips ahead fifty years and back to Earth, where we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), our main character (surprise! You thought it was Clooney, didn’t you?). Like Frank, Casey has a brilliant mind, and, like Frank, receives a special button from Athena. Except, Casey doesn’t know she has the button until after she is arrested for sabotaging equipment used to deconstruct a rocket launching pad at Cape Canaveral. You see, Casey has dreams of outer space and believes that if she stops the deconstruction, the government will magically fire Ted Cruz as head of the Congressional Science Committee (and from life in general) and NASA will start launching rockets with actual people on them again to places beyond low Earth orbit. For the record, I’d have those same beliefs if I wasn’t still stuck in line for the Dumbo ride.
When Casey touches the pin, she gets a glimpse of Tomorrowland and decides she simply has to get there. The entire middle of this film is Casey being chased by killer androids (another fun homage to Disney’s vaunted animatronics), Disney marketing its merchandising – including an entire store filled with Star Wars junk that, curiously, is missing a poster promoting Episode VII, to be released December, 2015 – and Athena hiyah-ing some of the killer androids. During that chase, we get a short reprieve when Casey winds up at Frank’s house and Frank tells her that he was kicked out of Tomorrowland for inventing a way to see the future. When Disney says “anything you can imagine” they aren’t effing kidding.
Before revealing what’s at stake, the androids interrupt and we learn that Frank’s house was booby-trapped better than McCauley Caulkin’s house in Home Alone. By this time, you might have noticed that we have spent very little time actually in Tomorrowland and when they actually get to Tomorrowland, it’s falling apart. As it turns out, Frank’s crystal ball revealed there was a 100% chance that humans were going to annihilate themselves sometime in the year 2015, by one of any number of methods – nuclear war, mass flooding, earthquakes, drought, disease, global warming, etc. In a classic villain monologue, Nix explains that they thought they could change the future by beaming images of the apocalypse directly into people’s brains so they would change their ways and save themselves, but, well, I already gave you his Titanic analogy. Thus, we arrive at the not-so-subtle message this movie is trying to deliver – “HEY!! All you numbskull climate-change deniers, war-hawks, anti-vaxxers, and eco-terrorists. Quit being part of the fucking problem! Just sit over there, shut up, and let the rational people work and maybe we can undo this huge mess you’ve made!” Or something like that.
Setting aside the politics for a moment, I found the ten year-old boy in me enjoying the movie and the actors. The film is light-hearted and upbeat and the kind of adventure I loved watching when I was young. Clooney nails the crotchety old man and his comedic timing is as good as ever. Laurie makes for a perfect cartoon villain; channeling a little Dr. House into the role. Robertson attacks her role with the enthusiasm of an entire troop of Mouseketeers and proves she’s much better than her less-than-stellarly-written Under the Dome character. Cassidy steals the spotlight, somehow pulling off her role without it coming across as overly absurd. If this movie has one flaw, it’s that it spends so little time in Tomorrowland that you wonder if the Imagineers were daydreaming a little too much when they wrote the script.
Like I said, the message in this movie is really one of eternal hope. Disney is all but begging us not to give up hope that we can overcome the people who refuse to believe (or don’t care) we’re heading for that iceberg. They even stoop to making sure that the audience knows it’s not just the scientific geniuses, but the ballet dancers and construction workers, among others, that are just as able to imagine solutions as the engineers and physicists, among others (keeping my mouth shut). And you know what? I’m okay with this. As the movie itself points out, we need wild optimism to combat a situation that gets more hopeless by the day so we can make it through a line that never seems to move.
Rating: Staunch, climate change-denying, right-wing conservatives will want their money back, but rational people will know their money was well spent.