Synopsis – A military family takes part in a ground-breaking experiment of genetic evolution and space exploration.
My Take – As a huge fan of the genre, it’s really disappointing to see how true science fiction features have become rarity now, with excellent films like Ex Machina and Annihilation releasing too far and few in between. Yet, despite the distress, it still hasn’t stopped me from checking most of what comes out, which brings me to this Netflix release, which for some reason also found its way into U.A.E cinemas last weekend. While I had an idea about the reception the film had received, I decided to give this debut feature from director Lennart Ruff a chance, mainly as it was backed by a good looking production and starred relatively known names, along with a plot that draws upon one of the most recurring obsessions within the genre: the Earth is dying, sometimes it’s through war, sometimes famine, sometimes through natural disasters; we’ve seen films where the planet is freezing, is boiling, has become flooded, and the core of the planet has stopped spinning, in the sense, we all need to get the hell off it, one way or another.
Here, writer Max Hurwitz, working off a story by Arash Amel, thinks turning to the moons of Saturn for humankind’s salvation is a good idea, which unfortunately, is the only interesting thing here, as the whole idea is boxed into yet another shallow sci-fi feature that lacks the brains or humanity to convey its premise. Squandered in a dull film whose individual elements are all taken from other much more interesting projects, the film has nothing original of its own, hereby becoming yet another example of bargain bin trash no-one has heard of and no-one will watch because sadly Sam Worthington headlining any film has become more repelling than enticing at this point.
Set in the year 2048, the story follows Former Air Force fighter pilot Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington), who along with a few other former military personnel like W.O. Tally Rutherford (Nathalie Emmanuel) and the skeptic Dr. Luis Hernandez (Diego Boneta), among others, are recruited for a special assignment led by Prof. Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistant Dr. Freya Upton (Agyness Deyn), to undergo to various procedures and genetic alterations, so they are able to withstand the deadly living conditions in Titan, Saturn’s moon, the only other planetary body with an atmosphere in our solar system other than Earth, which is on the brink of collapse.
Moving into a NATO base housing with his concerned wife Dr. Abi Janssen (Taylor Schilling) and young son, Lucas Janssen (Noah Jupe), in order to begin this evolution, Rick undergoes some intense drug therapy, which not only change the subject’s physiology, but also their mental state. However, 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 as they realize this unexpected side effects may have course corrected evolution in frightening ways nature never intended. A concept like this isn’t unknown in the realm of science fiction, as this is a premise that should evoke a sense of wonder, horror, and a certain level of intensity but it’s so flat throughout that none of this is present. The concept of genetically adapting our anatomy in order for our species to survive on other planets provides an original spin on a premise we’ve seen in many recent films such as Interstellar, Passengers and Alien: Covenant. Unfortunately, the screenplay is not equipped to fully tap into these themes, or to say anything of interest with regards to the questions it attempts to ask in order for the film to stand out.
This is largely due to an aimless plot that feels more like the writers were making it up as they went along than constructing it to serve a bigger picture; side characters and subplots come and go at will, and key developments occur sporadically as if someone has their finger on the skip button. The greatest strength of this film is its entire first half. Set against the backdrop of global upheaval and economic despair, 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, as this allows for the subjected to feel grounded and normal, with an ability to embrace their beloveds and to keep those moral values untouched as they’re tested on. But the film just doesn’t want to explore any of the ideas behind its premise, not the intellectual or ethical decisions that go into it, nor the consequences afterward, it just wants to tell you a story about a guy going through this procedure that’s it!
Another inherent issue in slowly building a predictable premise is that viewers cannot divorce themselves from being passive participants in a sci-fi setup. In the sense, we know that genetic alteration is never going to end well and will most certainly have deadly consequences, hence, watching and waiting, up to an hour no less, for characters to catch that same drift simply isn’t all that entertaining. If the film reminds me of anything, it’s probably Netflix last science fiction release, The Cloverfield Paradox, that spent an hour and a half setting up a more interesting story that you never got to see. This one too has the same problem, and the only time you want to see what happens next is at the very end, plus it skips past all the stuff that would have given what we actually do see any kind of relatable context or emotional heft.
In the sense, the film begins with the family having already made the decision to participate. How are we supposed to feel sympathy for their plight when, as far as we’re concerned, they’re getting what they signed up for? Even in the writing of the characters there isn’t an ounce of depth to latch on to or connect with at any point in the story. No one in here feels real, reactions come across as forced, and it feels as though characters are written to overcome certain events just to try and move forward at a slightly less slow pace. The professor’s plan is portrayed as mankind’s last hope. If he doesn’t succeed in re-engineering humanity, billions of people die. So what reason does he have to hide anything about the experiment when there is no other alternative anyway?
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. Unfortunately, the direction of the film, too, is uninteresting, as shots often feel flat and lack depth, or are simply too dark. There is an intriguing idea at the heart of the film, but with an underwhelming screenplay and direction, none of this potential is able to surface. While the material certainly isn’t great, the actors don’t exactly shine either as there’s barely a moment of charisma or sign of personality from almost anyone.
Led by Sam Worthington, who has made a career of playing the same stoic character in every film, while the film does try to give his character some heart, his performance is mostly just bland, as he fails to truly convoy the emotional weight of sacrificing himself to save humanity, while also lacking the charisma to overcome the poor script. Even though Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black) is given more to do than her co-star, she is still unable to produce a convincing performance. It seems Tom Wilkinson knows he is locked into a rote role, yet brings in whatever gravitas he can with minimally required effort. His bigger problem, is that painting the professor as the big bad guy leaves a lot to be desired as antagonists go. In a supporting roles, Nathalie Emmanuel, Agyness Deyn and Diego Boneta almost have nothing to do. On the whole, ‘The Titan’ is a dull and derivative science fiction film, which despite an intriguing premise, squanders due to its lackluster execution.
Directed – Lennart Ruff
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 97 minutes