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12 Movies to Watch After You See ‘The Space Between Us’

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2017

Or: some ’80s movies to watch if you’ve been living on Mars.

Wings of Desire

Given how bad the reviews are for The Space Between Us, you’re likely turned off from seeing it this weekend. It’s actually not that bad. It’s very corny most of the time and both Gary Oldman and Britt Robertson really need to tone themselves down, but it’s the sort of YA genre romance that could easily pick up fans down the road. When that happens, I’ve got a list for what needs to be seen next.

Most of the movies below are from the 1980s, including one that’s so prominently featured and clearly an inspiration that The Space Between Us borders on being a pseudo remake. I think the movie would have fit really well back then, preferably directed by Reagan-era Ron Howard and starring Jay Underwood in the part played by Asa Butterfield, Sarah Jessica Parker in Robertson’s role and Peter Coyote as a subdued version of Oldman’s.

Warning: there are spoilers for the plot of The Space Between Us below.

WarGames (1983)

John Badham’s classic teens on the run road movie that was very much ahead of its time stars Matthew Broderick as a high school hacker who unintentionally almost starts World War III. Ally Sheedy is the girl with a motorcycle who joins him as they search not for his own parents but the “father” of the gaming program he broke into. Dabney Coleman has the Oldman part. Rent or buy it from Amazon.

Splash (1984)

Ron Howard’s live-action fairy tale is kind of a literal fish out of water story where Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who takes a break from the ocean and romances Tom Hanks in Manhattan. Like Butterfield’s character, she’s limited in her time on the earth by a ticking clock, though hers isn’t lethal. There’s a similar ending, too, as far as the couple being happily ever after.
Rent or buy it from Amazon.

Starman (1984)

My favorite negative description of The Space Between Us comes from Christy Lemire’s review at RogerEbert.com: “it plays a bit like a Muppet Babies version of Starman.” I don’t think that’s as bad as it sounds, but the movie does definitely recall John Carpenter’s movie where Karen Allen plays a woman who falls for a magical alien who takes on the appearance of her dead husband (Jeff Bridges). There is a road trip to the Southwest, too.
Rent or buy it from Amazon.

D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

Take away the romance and make the boy a robot who doesn’t know he’s a robot and you’ve got this little-remembered essential for all Barret Oliver completists (he’s also in Ron Howard’s Cocoon, which means he could have also been a contender for the ’80s version of The Space Between Us). Michael McKean and Mary Beth Hurt play his foster parents, which unlike the cliche foster dad in The Space Between Us are actually caring guardians.
Rent or buy it from Amazon.

SpaceCamp (1986)

A kid is stranded in outer space against his will? That sounds like SpaceCamp, though in this movie Joaquin Phoenix plays a boy with a robot best friend who wishes to get off Earth (and is temporarily granted that wish), while The Space Between Us is abotu a boy with a robot best friend who wishes to go to Earth (and is temporarily granted that wish).
Buy it from Amazon.

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Joey Cramer – aka the fake Henry Thomas, as I knew him as in my youth – stars in this Disney sci-fi adventure as a boy who arrives on earth as a fish out of water only because he took a trip to outer space in 1978 and returned unchanged (non-aged) eight years later. There’s a subtle romance here if you like to imagine the sequel where Cramer’s character meets Sarah Jessica Parker’s when she’s younger and they wind up at NASA together. Howard Hesseman is the Oldman character in this one. Rent or buy from Amazon.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Here’s the movie Butterfield’s character watches on Mars and which we keep seeing clips of again and again as he recalls some of its scenes. Its use is very on the nose, especially for how much it’s featured. Basically The Space Between Us piggybacks on the Wim Wenders film for some of its emotional beats. At least young audiences have a good reason to see Wings of Desire, though, because it’s wonderful. And at least they didn’t use the Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan remake, City of Angels, instead.
Buy the Criterion edition from Amazon.

Not Quite Human (1987)

If you’ve been lost with all my Jay Underwood references, here’s one place to see the actor, whom older folks may know better from Uncle Buck, The Boy Who Could Fly, and the ’90s Fantastic Four movie. In this Southwest-set Disney TV movie based on a series of YA books, Underwood plays the robot son of Alan Thicke (and brother of Robin Lively) and his performance is much more Muppet Babies version of Starman than Butterfield’s. Not Quite Human is super cheesy but still likable, enough that it spawned two sequels.
Buy it from Amazon.

Twins (1988)

In this hit Ivan Reitman comedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito play unlikely twins separated at birth who go on a trip (to the Southwest again) to find their mother. When they reach their destination it’s similar to the scene in The Space Between Us when Butterfield locates the man he thinks is his father. There are probably other movies in which a child seeks a parent who doesn’t know they exist, but this is the first that came to mind.
Rent it from Amazon.

The Wizard (1989)

Kind of like the Muppet Babies version of Rain Man loaded with Nintendo product placement, this movie stars Fred Savage on a road trip with his little brother (Luke Edwards) to California and along the way they’re joined by Jenny Lewis. She’d be another good choice for the ’80s version of The Space Between Us as she’s got the cynical side of Robertson’s character down.
Rent or buy it from Amazon.

Enders Game (2013)

And now we’ve broken free from the ’80s movies for the first of two recent under-seen sci-fi essentials. This adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic novel, which sadly reads like Harry Potter in space to the kids of today, stars Butterfield and he’s even better here than in The Space Between Us. Not everybody likes Ender’s Game because its ending isn’t too conventional and actually makes you think. It’s too bad it wasn’t more popular, too, because it could have been a smart franchise. After you see it, you have 12 more movies to check out, including the ’80s teen sci-fi movie The Last Starfighter.
Rent or buy it from Amazon.

Midnight Special (2016)

My pick for the best sci-fi movie of last year, this Jeff Nichols feature is also quite reminiscent of Starman and other ’80s road-trip-based genre fare. Michael Shannon stars as a father driving his 8-year-old son, who has special powers and may in fact be from another world, to – here’s a twist – the Southeast (Florida to be exact). The movie is filled with great performance, including Adam Driver, who is kind of the Oldman character in this one.
Buy it from Amazon.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.