Backed by a beefy production and with relative big-name actors attached (Sam Worthington, Taylor Schilling, Nathalie Emmanuel), Lennart Ruff’s The Titan promises heady drama and a dilemma plaguing the minds of today’s most ambitious scientists: Can we evolve to live on another planet?
Sadly, following the trend of some recent Netflix films, the premise and actual execution of these ideas don’t always mix very well.
The premise of the movie revolves around the goals of a research facility, formed after a hinted-at nuclear war around the year 2048. Earth has become borderline inhospitable in certain areas, and, instead of looking for ways to save the rotten planet, scientists are gazing up at the stars. More specifically at Saturn’s moon, Titan, the only other planetary body with an atmosphere in our solar system other than Earth. A group of death-defying survivors are recruited into this facility and subjected to various procedures and genetic alterations, so they are able to withstand the deadly living conditions in Titan. These methods, though, not only change the subject’s physiology, but also their mental state, and when some of them begin to die in less-than-pleasant ways, or turn into aggressive beasts, anxiety and mistrust begins to well up inside them.
A concept like this isn’t unknown in the realm of science fiction, but how can writers Arash Amel and Max Hurwitz change up the formula enough for it to be fresh?
The greatest strength of this film is its entire first half. Right from the get-go we’re plopped into a known world plunged into chaos, and seeking to escape that chaos are a group of families being escorted into the scientific facility. Of these families, they really only want those who they’re experimenting with, but letting them stay with their loved ones is a clever logical decision taken by the researchers (and by the writers as well), as this allows for the subjected to feel grounded and “normal”, able to embrace their beloveds and to keep those moral values untouched as they’re tested on. It’s a rational decision anyone can get behind. This state, of course, doesn’t last too much, as the plot picks up the pace almost immediately and begins to challenge the sanity of our poor survivors.
Speaking of the characters, they actually make up the bulk of the investment of the story, like any good story should. They each have their own opinions and goals in regards to these procedures, their own reasons for going through it, and they all feel like concrete, relatable people, with their own pasts, personalities and relations. Conversations feel honest and realistic, as the dialogue is crafted with care, properly progressing the scenes as emotions twist and warp with every passing concern. Good characters and dialogue in films is not the norm, and when a movie manages to make interactions sound grounded, it deserves props for that.
On another positive note, the plot progression is, as I said, constantly moving forward. The basics of the setting, character goals and conflicts are set up and properly explained within the first fifteen minutes, and the film is able to deliver exposition in a way that doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Character relations are established comfortably and smoothly, and even some moments of non-verbal interaction are littered throughout, promising a film unwilling to guide us by the hand at all times. As soon as the skeleton of the story is complete, the flesh of the film is the downward spiral of genetic mutations, bloody accidents, and an overwhelming realization that most of these people aren’t going to make it through the trials.
Where the film begins to deteriorate to the point of confusion is during its second half. We’ll be heading to spoiler territory, since at this point the movie completely changes genres and begins to deliver some of the payoff it’s been building, with less than stellar results.
By this point, some of the subjects have either died or been killed due to becoming mindless monsters, and Abigail (our main character and Rick’s wife), decides to investigate further by infiltrating the offices of the facility’s director, Prof. Collingwood, finding out that he wants to create an entirely new species of humans, the Homo Titaniens. The discovery of this doesn’t really go anywhere, and the mention of genetics is done throughout the first third of the film, making it pretty obvious that that’s the direction the researchers were going in.
It also doesn’t really lead into the subsequent big scene, where all of the other patients suddenly die during the final phase, leaving only our Rick and another woman, Tally, alive and fully transformed into a blend of the aliens in the beginning of Prometheus and the monster in The Shape of Water. First of all, all those characters were only explored near the beginning of the film in order to provide a comfortable environment for our protagonists, but they were developed with enough care to make them impactful and layered, and killing them off in such a fashion removes their purpose in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, killing them off this way does cement the fact that these scientific experiments are deadly, and the threat of seemingly random death can occur at any moment, increasing the tension. All in all, this scene is mixed, but the possibilities of employing more of these characters into the overall plot is lost potential.
After this development, the newly formed amphibian-people go berserk, as Tally kills her husband and tries to mate (or at least that’s what it seems) with Rick, before she’s gunned down as well, as Rick escapes. This escape, though, doesn’t last much as Abigail goes to search him, finds him immediately, are both put under containment. This particular subplot feels pointless, as it’s resolved immediately and could’ve just as easily been done during the scene where Tally gets killed. Alas, for some reason they decide to deviate the plot and waste our time.
The climax of the film is when Collingwood forces Abigail to inject a chemical lobotomizer into Rick, since he’s “too attached to Earth” to leave for Titan. She switches out the chemical for Saline (forcing me to wonder why would anyone give her the opportunity to foil the plans in the first place), allowing Rick to escape and battle the soldiers surrounding them. First of all, the whole “too attached to Earth” phrase is untrue, as in the end of the film, he’s on Titan without having to undergo any mind-altering chemicals. On the other hand, this could just be Collingwood continuing to act delusionally, which actually does pay off when him and his private army corner Abigail, her kid, and a doctor she befriended, ordering the soldiers to shoot them. They object, deciding to shoot Collingwood instead. They all leave content and the future of humanity is secured when a second project gets developed and Rick gets sent to Titan.
The main problem of this finale is that it transforms the film from being a tense, character-driven drama about personal good versus greater good, into an action thriller heavily reminiscent of The Shape of Water. And if not narratively, at the very least in appearance. The interesting characters get flicked off the plot, the poignant themes are scrapped for action fluff, and the ending is ultimately hopeful and uplifting, when a neutral or even negative finale would’ve been much more powerful, realistic, and introspective.
The Titan is not a terrible film, as solid plot construction and some excellent performances are what drives the first half forward with much confidence. Unfortunately, as soon as any kind of resolution is reached, it gets bogged down into predictable popcorn entertainment, abandoning any real science fiction promises it held during the buildup.
The Titan sets up a surprisingly solid, anxious story about the dangers and possibilities of scientific experimentation and space travel, but drops most of its intellect as it closes, making for a mixed bag of a film sadly concluding in disappointment.