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I am the fish man what doesn’t fuck.

So I should have had this review up last night (when it was Friday) but I went and saw Ready Player One and missed my window. Still, felt the need to write about The Titan partly because I won’t be writing about two other mostly bad Netflix movies I’ve seen recently: The Cloverfield Paradox and The Outsider. I know there’s been this narrative going lately about how Netflix is way more about quantity than quality, and they’re greenlighting or acquiring a lot of mediocre movies, which is sullying their brand. There’s also the disruptive element of their presence in the marketplace which forces the big film institutions like the studios, theater chains, and even Cannes to react to them in childish, market-driven ways while hiding the reality behind lofty, vague assertions of cinematic purity. I’m still here for Netflix and yes, I do believe they deserve awards consideration at both the Oscars (for whatever little that’s worth) and Cannes.

But none of that makes The Titan a good movie. It certainly won’t change any minds about Netflix’s sketchy standards. The main issue with this one is that it’s pretty interesting for about the first forty minutes only to abandon all sense and credibility for one of the worst third acts I’ve seen recently. Interestingly, the problems in The Cloverfield Paradox and the wet fart The Open House were similarly silly, broken departures from whatever elements were working beforehand. There’s probably room for a great deal of discussion around the prevalence of broken, shitty second acts in major Hollywood genre movies versus the nose-dive third acts of smaller, mid-budget movies of the type Netflix seems to love picking up. This won’t be that, but maybe keep it in mind as we roll.

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Much as he never amounted to, it still kinda pains me to see Worthington showing up for shit like this.

The Titan starts with the admittance of Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington) and his family into a special program that has something to do with genetic engineering and space. As the gutless, overselling trailers explained (overly), this is all about finding humans a new home on Saturn’s moon, Titan. To do this, we need to change our bodies so that we can survive there. The mission’s details are vague, but there’s a selection process that a bunch of pilots and astronauts from around the world are involved in. They’re promised to be “you, but better” by the end. Provided they can survive.

The story is delivered primarily through the perspective of Dr. Abi Janssen (Taylor Schilling), Rick’s wife. This seems like a fairly above-board choice except that it renders the drama of what’s happening to Rick more or less inert and at arm’s length. The movie plays like it wants to be a faux-doc, charting the progress of a program that has a wildly unpredictable effect on its participants. We do see them talk and train and a lot of this is perfectly serviceable. The science is hand-waved, but lent a kind of B-movie authority by maybe-ally Dr. Frey Upton (Agyness Dyun) and a sinister, urbane veneer in the project head, Dr. Collingwood (ever-game Tom Wilkinson). The idea that we might need to dramatically alter our bodies to survive in space, let alone other planets, long-term has been floated many times and is a science fiction mainstay. So the nitty gritty of that is a primary function of The Titan and is what keeps it mostly interesting for the first act or so.

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There’s some ancillary detail about the politics of all this, but it’s kind of fluff.

By the time the program starts claiming the lives of the other members, people we barely see and don’t really care about, the movie starts to careen away from the stated intentions of the plot and into a very special kind of inept chaos. The idea that this program has any kind of guiding principle or sound science is abandoned for shrugging notes about Collingwood’s hubris in trying to create a new human species. But what’s the mechanism of this? There’s a mention of animal DNA. There’s some mysterious surgery that is necessary to contain the “emotional volatility” of the subjects as they change. They start raging out and dying off, which would be interesting if it weren’t so frustratingly vague. The one thread the movie keeps sound is the looming body horror of Rick, who is taking to the changes well, and Abi’s reaction to it. Several times, the movie threatens to recenter itself on these people, the closest thing to characters we’ve got, only to fail.

As the second act ends and it seems like Collingwood’s secrets and the ramifications of them are going to become clear or at least come to some sort of head… they don’t. You’re led to think that this is the main thrust of the story: nefarious mad scientist hides insane project behind altruistic motives, gets discovered and consequences ensue. Instead, this is dropped when Rick decides he’s very into the gifts bestowed by the project. The movie then offers a montage of the participants dying on hospital beds one by one. All except Rick and Tally (Nathalie Emmanuel), who helped each other through the training and provided some much-needed human centering to those scenes. Now, though, we’re in the third act and they’re full on aliens for some reason. Nothing about the plot or characterization make any sense from then on. There’s no theme that emerges, though it might get closest to say that the project dehumanized its subjects and only the strong love of family keeps Rick tethered to some semblance of who he was. But I’m stretching to say that and even if it’s there, it’s executed so ineptly that it would be easy to derive a completely different and equally poorly supported meaning from the proceedings.

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This is indeed one of the final shots of the movie, totally spoiled by the trailer.

The movie ends with Rick on Titan, alone, and somehow this is supposed to be inspiring when the movie has taken pains to state that everyone on Earth is fucked. Half the population is gonna die, the planet is becoming uninhabitable, etc. But new fish/flying-squirrel man Rick is gonna accomplish… something… on Titan that makes it all okay! There’s just no here here. The movie ends with nothing to take away from it, not even the idea that in spite of Collingwood’s delusions, humanity got something good out of his illegal experiments. What does anyone get out of this? Unless of course one of Rick’s inexplicable “Homo Titanius” powers is to procreate asexually? There’s no clear sense of implication with the idea that Tally represented a kind of “Titan Eve” being dropped as hard and fast as her mutated body when the trigger-happy MPs (or whoever they were) executed her. Is the idea that they’ll perfect the techniques Collingwood used and create more Titan fish/flying-squirrel people to send up later? I doubt even the writers of the movie really know.

It’s too bad. If the movie had stuck to the promise of its first act, this would have been a great little scifi movie dealing with a mostly unexplored subject. A similarly half-baked movie, The Beyond, dealt with similar subject matter and stayed wildly more consistent about it (though it had other issues). Instead, they must have lost their nerve somewhere in the process and decided what the movie really needed was a suspenseful third act where The Titan suddenly turns into Species and is not the better for it.

 

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