If recent sci-fi films are any indication, the 2040’s are set to be a rough decade for humanity. Netflix’s latest genre offering, The Titan, is set in a 2048 where nuclear fallout is making vast swaths of land uninhabitable and overpopulation is making life unsustainable, with the sole hope of survival being relocation off-world. Enter Rick Janssen, a war pilot who opts in to an experimental mission that will send him to Saturn’s moon Titan, relocating his wife and son to a NATO base while he undergoes preparations.
These preparations, overseen by the gruff bureaucrat Professor Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson), involve changing the make-up of the recruits’ bodies, forcing them to adapt to the higher methane levels and conditions of Titan. We follow them as they undergo the treatments and as the side effects become increasingly ominous, causing Rick’s wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) to start wondering if there may be more to the program than Collingwood is letting on.
As far as sci-fi films go, the premise here is not awful, and should theoretically provide ample questions about the nature of humanity and sacrifice for the good of mankind. The Titan takes advantage of none of these, without even the courtesy of offering anything interesting in the way of plot points to make up for it.
The screenplay here by Max Hurwitz struggles at nearly every turn here to find something to put on screen that will interest or move the plot along, further shooting itself in the foot by consuming the first hour of a 90-minute film with the recruits’ training. As portrayed by the film, this “training” is nothing more than an endless cycle of injections, swimming laps, and running in circles outside.
The injections, which are revealed to be altering Rick so much that he will become a new species, are the focus here, but it is just not interesting or involving to watch our protagonist being injected multiple times, and is a very passive way to bring about change in him. Even when we see the first signs of change in recruits (dark blood vessels, hair falling out), none of it is bizarre enough to register as major to viewers, even as we are shown Abigail’s increasing worry.
As the film approaches the hour mark and Rick decides to undergo a final drastic treatment that will complete his transformation, it becomes clear that the movie will not be spending any significant time in space, despite its marketing suggesting otherwise. Nevertheless, Rick’s physical transformation does inject (pun intended) some much-needed dramatic momentum into the film. As Abigail and Collingwood fight over Rick, we finally get some action and tension that makes it come alive for the first time.
Ironically, once again the script trips over itself here. By failing to engage with any moral or ethical questions on a deeper level, we never really understand why Abigail is acting the way that she is. After seeing the NATO forces gun down the other morphed and surviving recruit, one could understand her being scared for Rick’s safety, but that is counteracted by the fact that the recruit had just killed a doctor. When Abigail’s actions at the end result in countless people killed only, the end result hardly seems worth that sacrifice and undermine anything it may be trying to say about the sanctity of life or humanity.
The few things that The Titan does have going for it are mostly cribbed from other, better genre films. Its make-up work is well done, although the post-transformation recruits are heavily reminiscent of the Aliens series’ Engineers. Its cinematography is occasionally captivating, although not surprisingly adopts the sterile and washed-out aesthetic of Ex Machina, which this film clearly aspires to emulate. Solid performances from Wilkinson, Schilling, and Nathalie Emmanuel make up for Worthington’s lack of charisma, lending the film enough gravitas to make it feel like a Hollywood production.
This is an unfortunate misfire from Netlix, which is still in search of a great sci-fi film after Bright and Mute flopped with critics. Without a desire to explore the questions posed by its premise and with nothing interesting or unique to fill the runtime, The Titan quickly becomes a slog for even the most forgiving fan of the genre. Adding insult to injury is the film’s final shot, finally showing us Rick on Titan. That is the part of this story that the film should be telling, and what most viewers will have turned in to see. It’s a shame that the film’s story ends as soon as it gets us there.
The Titan is now on release in selected UK cinemas.