About halfway through The Titan, I paused the movie and thought to myself, “why did I decide to watch this garbage?” Well, if I’m honest, it’s because it was the hot new sci-fi film being published by Netflix and their algorithms scored me at a 98% match. Oh you tricky, tricky Netflix engineers. I’m going to try to be charitable in this The Titan review, but the whole movie is one big steaming mess that seems to have suffered from too many cooks in the kitchen leading to a lack of direction. The plot goes one way then suddenly veers in another direction like some kind of fickle field-rabbit. The final product makes me imagine a bunch of kids being handed money, filming a bunch of random omg-so-cool-CG enhanced scenes, then trying to jumble them all together into a coherent movie.
But I guess it looks kind of slick?
This is a little embarrassing, but I mistook the lead actor, Sam Worthington (of Avatar and Terminator Salvation fame), as the same lead actor in another Netflix sci-fi movie, Spectral. Spectral’s lead actor is actually James Badge Dale.
That movie also wasn’t the greatest, but it was still a far superior fun and unapologetic fancy-future-soldier-I’m-a-shooting-my-plasma-gunz-military-porn popcorn movie. It was at least coherent–even if you have a guy building a battalion’s worth of plasma guns in single night–and you could see the plot moving forward sensibly as the protagonist solves the central mystery of the ghost soldiers. Also, Spectral’s plasma cannons/future soldiers/mechs vs ghosts scene is totally sweet in an over the top FPS shooter video game way. The Titan lacks the kind of coherence Spectral has, never making a decision on where it’s going with its premise.
In the beginning, the movie gives a Jurassic Park-like feel of science pushing the barriers of evolution. It then moves to something like Apollo 13/Top Gun where you have a band of plucky strangers having to work together for the sake of a bigger mission. As the movie continues, it gives vibes of a secret government experiment being run on unwitting participants–one particular scene with Abi Janssen, the wife of the genetically modified protagonist Rick Janssen, has her noticing hidden cameras in their military base home (cameras so hidden that they glow with a bright blue LED light). That scene also marks a random shift from the genetically modified Rick to the wife Abi as the main character the film follows. You could argue that the shift is to emphasize how Rick is becoming more alien, so we switch to following the still human Abi.
Another scene has Abi sneaking around the project’s offices, with the military leaders arriving for a secret meeting with the lead scientist of the Titan project.
The film hints at a grand conspiracy there, but it turns out it’s just the lead scientist being a caricatured mad scientist villain while the military base’s general has to make a Tough Choice© so he can be A Moral Man™. Later, it plays almost like a monster movie with the fully genetically modified female candidate Tally murdering a bunch of people for no discernible reason, then a manhunt for the now alien Rick who may as well be a robot CG character based on how little you empathize with him. From there, it seems to become a random action movie with the wife facilitating the escape of the husband. He goes on an inexplicable soldier killing spree to get to the lead scientist villain (his name is Professor Martin Collingwood, but he’s so forgettably generic that I had to look up his name).
The movie tries to be too much at once, never really settling on a consistent tone or structure. I guess the most coherent way to describe it is science goes too far, but Man overcomes. The Titan tries building tension in so many different ways that none of them ever really have an impact in keeping the audience interested.
One of the initial scenes has the candidates for the Titan program in a theater. They receive a mission briefing like a straight rip off of every military movie ever with a motley crew prepping for their next battle. They even have the formulaic sequence of the fearful wimp in the crew asking an expositional question and the jerk-like tough guy giving him a hard time for it. It’s hollow, it’s cliched, and it’s overdone. The lead scientist of the Titan program and future prime villain stands at the podium lecturing the gathered candidates about the world of The Titan in this scene. The lecture as exposition trope rarely works elegantly to explain backstory and this scene isn’t one of those rare times it works. The professor gracelessly explain how war and industry have caused massive climate change in an awkward info dump. According to his supremely interesting Powerpoint slides, half the world will be uninhabitable in several years (cue slide ripped from a disaster relief nonprofit of a flooded building with cute child looking up).
Very clumsy, amateurish directing.
Shaky Science, Shaky Premise
During that initial briefing scene, a nagging doubt pulled at my mind and continued throughout the movie.
Why do they go through all this trouble to evolve humans to live on Titan, completely changing their biology to match a literal alien environment inhospitable to life? While they mention the climate change issues, extreme weather, floods, droughts, and generally terrible condition of the Earth, there’s no way it’s harsher than a freezing cold (-179 degrees Celsius), dimly lit, non-oxygenated, lightning storm filled, methane-sea-having, micro-gravity possessing moon out near Saturn.
Why don’t they just engineer humans to be slightly more resilient so they don’t have to try moving a billion people to a planet with hundreds of known difficulties, even more unknown challenges, and 0 infrastructure? In the movie they say Los Angeles is uninhabitable because of flash floods and nuclear fallout, but does that somehow make Titan–a moon 1.4 billion km away or 10x the distance of the Earth to the Sun–a more hospitable place?
The answer is no.
The professor tells the candidates that half the planet will be uninhabitable then seconds later say their best hope is Saturn’s largest moon with an ecosystem like Earth’s primordial state seconds after being born. Did anyone in the entire production cast of The Titan take 5 seconds to Google what Earth was like in its primordial state? What would you think about constant volcanic eruptions and a toxic, less than 1 percent oxygen atmosphere? Primordial Earth was a billion times harsher than how they describe their contemporary Earth, that’s why the most complex life during that time period was bacteria. After the professor shows the slide with a flooded building, he goes on to say how Titan has liquid methane lakes you can’t swim in, a nitrogen-methane atmosphere you can’t breathe, and a climate too cold for life to exist. According to him, it is “…beyond the reach of space science” to be able to live there.
So how about this radical idea: since they are still breathing Earth air just fine and they don’t have to deal with liquid methane oceans or triple digit negative temperatures, just do comparatively minor genetic engineering to enable humanity to deal with a polluted earth. Doesn’t that make more sense than becoming aliens and going to Titan?
But then there wouldn’t be a movie, right?
Form Over Function
Near the end of the movie, they make a big point that the 2 final candidates, Rick and the barely developed female side character Tally, cannot communicate with regular humans; they can only communicate with each other by touch due to their genetic modifications. But they clearly still have hands–did nobody think of giving them a pen and paper? Or a computer? Or any kind of interface they could use to communicate with?
Shortly after their transformation reveal, there’s a scene showing the wife Abi helping husband Rick pack for his mission. The big tension in this scene is their inability to communicate with each other–how strange he seems now–and the fear that brings. The movie is trying to underscore the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of whether he’s still the same person. Unfortunately, I keep thinking how Abi is shown as a genius biological scientist, yet never thinks to hand her husband a pencil and paper. That’s literally all they would have to do to resolve the problem.
There are plenty of real life examples of other animal species being able to communicate with humans even though they don’t speak the same language–primates using sign language, every dog who has ever sat on command, dolphins, birds, and several other animals. Some kind of prosthetic communication tool could be used to bridge the gap between regular and modified humans, something like a pencil, but I guess that’s too hard for the top level bioengineers/scientists of the Titan project who transform people into literal tentacle wielding aliens.
How exactly were they planning to send them on a space mission into deep space without any way of communicating with Earth or reporting their findings? Also how is communicating by touching each other directly an advantage in a harsh survival situation? Any time you want to talk to someone or tell someone about danger, you have to go right next to them and touch them. That doesn’t sound like an advantage over being able to yell out “Danger!” and everyone hearing you.
Why do they even have blade tentacles? What’s the purpose of having those besides it being important to the action scenes? If I was being charitable, I guess you could say it’s useful survival tool, extra arm, and weapon they can never lose. The movie never explains this though, it just has the Titan Project candidates suddenly turn into one man killing machines capable of taking out dozens of soldiers with ease. One of them dies after getting shot several times so I don’t see how those tentacles, which basically have the range of a combat knife, suddenly allow them to take out assault rifle armed soldiers at standing at a distance. To be fair, you could give them a pass since those are the only action scenes in the entire movie. The majority of the screen time is much more boring.
The movie doesn’t even maintain consistency between what happens earlier due to the modifications and their state with the full transformations. Rick is shown withstanding extreme cold, but also overheating at regular Earth temperatures. Yet later on, after his full transformation, he’s running around totally okay at room temperature. Remember how Titan is around 200 degrees colder than the Earth’s temperature? Shouldn’t they be dying of heat stroke?
In the scene where the mad scientist villain, the base general, and NASA have a secret meeting, you get to meet the most sane person in The Titan. A NASA representative challenges the Titan Project’s validity in a video call. He criticizes the forced evolution idea as irrational. It’s too bad they only give him 10 seconds of screen time because he’s the most sensible part of the entire movie.
Notice Me Please Senpais!
One thing that bothers me throughout the movie: how little I care about the candidates in the Titan Project. The other people going through the genetic modifications are essentially disposable red shirts that are there as cannon fodder. If you ask me what their names are I wouldn’t be able to tell you because they’re so forgettable. They aren’t really developed in any way to make me care when they inevitably die due to complications from the genetic augmentation. In fact, I barely even care about Rick surviving to the end, even though he’s one of the main characters
I also asked myself why I’m supposed to care about the other candidate, Tally Rutherford, who survives to the end. They really only show her significantly in 2 scenes–training underwater to breathe nitrogen and talking with the Abi about how helpful Rick is in keeping her going with the program. They do show Tally with a totally forgettable significant other who she murders near the ending. It’s unexpected because there’s no build up besides a couple mentions about how the gene therapy loosens emotional inhibitions. I cared very little that Tally’s husband gets murdered; it’s inconsequential because you see this guy as just some nameless expendable who cooks dinner.
I cared an asymptotically small amount approaching zero when Tally gets killed after her murder spree. I’d imagine it matters more to the people working for the Titan project. “Welp, there goes a billion dollar experiment and the even male-to-female ratio for our Titan colonization project.”
The only one who gets any substantial humanization is the wife, Abi. She’s pretty much the only person you empathize with in the entire movie. She has to deal with a husband getting more alien by the day and shady government organizations hiding information from her. She actually goes on her own to investigate the secret plot, figures out where her husband is after he goes full alien, and supports his escape at the end of the film when he hunts down the mad scientist. Abi has actual character development as she goes from naive supporting wife to empowered investigator and leading the rebellion against Professor Collingwood.
By the way, Rick’s escape has him spearing dozens of soldiers and rampaging through the base, yet they somehow decide it’s all forgiven, sending him on the mission anyway. They have to physically restrain him in a box, then he goes killing all those people, and the the project staff aren’t able to control him in any way–even resorting to memory wiping drugs. Obviously, they would think “oh yeah, let’s definitely send this one guy to Titan and place all our hopes on him” because everyone in The Titan acts 100000% rationally.
The villian, Professor Collingwood, starts out vaguely reminding me of Dr. Hammond in the original Jurassic Park, an eccentric but naive genius. However, that quickly changes as he starts playing way too hard into the typical supervillain mad scientist trope. He seems to be evil for the sake of being evil, yelling at the soldiers to kill Rick, Abi, and one of his protege scientists at the end of the movie. When Abi sneaks into his office, he has a cringe inducing poster showing the evolution of Man into “Homo Titanius”. It’s a bit too cartoonish for the tone of the film.
The ending shows Rick reaching Titan and looking out at the money shot, a CG’ed to hell landscape. As the camera sweeps dramatically around him standing on a cliff with lighting flashing on an alien planet, a rising orchestral score playing in the background, I think to myself, “I have no idea why I’m supposed to care.” The movie ends with him jumping off the cliff and flying. Yay, I guess?
He’s one guy on another planet that the film never shows as being able to communicate with Earth. What is he even going to do there by himself?
Don’t they still need to somehow move the rest of humanity to Titan? How exactly is that going to work when they went through all that trouble just to yield one viable augmented human. That one successful candidate also had to be a super extraordinary soldier who walked through a desert for 3 days and nights without food or water. That doesn’t sound like something that will scale for a whole colony’s worth of humans. His wife Abi is left behind, assigned as the lead for the Titan II project. Good luck to her because I have no idea how she’s going to accomplish Titan’s colonization.
And Everything is Blue for Him
This isn’t too much of a criticism, but the cinematography is really heavy-handed in its color palette with the science fiction = blue trope. Nearly every scene has a blue cast or blue hue to it. The movie also seems purposely underlit in several scenes to make it–I’m going to use all caps here–DARK and MOODY for a SERIOUS BROODING ATMOSPHERE. I get that they’re emphasizing the candidates’ evolution to an alien, cold environment and that blue also typically signifies advanced technology/sterile medical environments, but it makes the movie a little visually monotonous.
Just look at all the screenshots I’ve used in this post so far and you can see how much blue permeates the film.
With the exception of the couple minutes of Titan’s landscape, the entire movie is blue.
They could have used different colors to add interest or toned down the use of blue in every scene to make things contrast more. Perhaps they were using it as a visual metaphor for water, like how all Earth life evolved from the ocean, but instead humans are evolving to a new planet. There’s also some astronomy photos depicting Titan and parts of Saturn as blue, so that could be another reason, though the film shows the surface of Titan as yellow. The constant blue hues still makes the movie look too one note.
This could have been the movie’s theme song:
These guys should have been in the movie too:
My two biggest peeves with The Titan are that they barely develop all of the characters, making it hard to care about anyone, and that their execution of the premise is so sloppily handled. If I sound annoyed in this review, it’s because I kind of am. They could have done so much more with this film. Watching it was a waste of time–I only finished it so I could report the exact degree of its mediocrity.
If you’re interested in judging this movie on its own merits (don’t tell me you haven’t received ample warning in this review of The Titan), here’s the basic rundown on The Titan, taken from the Netflix page: