Netflix’s new film The Titan has a fairly cool idea at its center: what if we have to genetically remake humanity in order to survive? Specifically, future scientists faced with a looming apocalypse brought about by disease and overpopulation secretly recruit a group of soldiers from around the world to be tested and turned into superhumans capable of living on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon which has large bodies of water but a slightly different atmosphere. That’s a damn good hook for a movie, but as per usual with Netflix’s original sci-fi films the results are rather modest, more diverting than engrossing. I don’t regret watching it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to pay seven, ten, or fifteen bucks to do so.
Sam Worthington (on a bit of a career rebound thanks to Manhunt: Unabomber) and Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) star as husband and wife Rick and Abigail Janssen. He’s an Air Force pilot; she’s a doctor. They have a young son together, and it is that bond and sense of responsibility which drives Rick to join the experimental science program headed by Dr. Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson).
The details, of course, are sketchy (“you’ll become a new breed of supermen” is more or less all they get) and possibility of failure or even death under-explained. They’re told the experiment could help save the human race. As a father living in a world which suddenly has an expiration date – Dr. Collingwood predicts everyone will die in 15 years – the choice to be a part of fighting for the future is an easy one for Rick.
So, Rick and his family are moved to a secret military compound, one where the definition of military housing looks quite a bit like gorgeous California homes up in the hills. On the eve of the first testing procedures, all of the selected soldiers (which includes a couple of women and people of color) and their families gather for a friendly barbeque. Spouses get to know one another. Soldiers roughneck. Kids play. Rick and Abigail even dance together at one point.
It’s the last time any of them will have any stress-free fun.
That’s because once the testing commences an air of uncertainty lingers over everyone’s head, and the story turns into a riff on Cronenberg’s The Fly. There’s this clear love between Rick and Abigail, but as he starts to change their initial joy over the encouraging early results – look, Rick can hold his breath underwater for 30 minutes now! – turns to worry – hey, did you just shed a layer of your skin? – turns to horror – holy crap, you’re totally turning into an Alien Nation/del Toro creature! Oh, Dr. Collingwood, you mad scientist you, what in the world have you done?
The film is propped up by its sci-fi hook and inevitable twists, but the emotional throughline is obviously the romance. It’s a love story about a couple put to the ultimate test. Before too long, Abigail becomes terrified of her own husband, but also still devoted because somewhere under the man’s new eyes is the person she loves and the father of her child.
Schilling sells this conflict convincingly enough whereas Worthington, showing off some of that old Avatar range, mostly makes a blank stare his best friend since his character internalizes everything. That makes The Titan a film you more understand than feel in any real deep way.
Beyond that, by Netflix sci-fi movie standards The Titan is not quite the junky B-movie of The Cloverfield Paradox or Bright nor the noir weirdness of Mute or Radius. It’s most certainly not the zany social commentary of Okja,and it’s absolutely not on the level of Annihilation (which is not technically a Netflix movie where I live). Instead, it’s rather slow-moving, moody, and torn between two different films – the one with Rick and the recruits going through experiments, the other with Abigail freaking out over what’s happening to her husband and looking into the mad scientist’s secrets.
The result is that you are likely to end up disappointed that neither side of the film fully succeeds. The whole thing, really, just drags on longer than it should. But if the romantic conflict I’ve described sounds intriguing to you then you might find something of interest in The Titan. Or, if you’ve never seen The Fly, just watch that instead. No, seriously, you should do that. It’s so, so, so much better than The Titan.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What does it mean to be married to someone who is no longer technically human and whose behavior and actions become increasingly unpredictable? If that question intrigues you, maybe give The Titan a shot. If not, just skip it.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Am I the only one who initially mistook Agyness Deyn, playing Tom Wilkinson’s right-hand woman Dr. Upton, for Agents of Shield’s Elizabeth Henstridge?
- I’m still surprised there isn’t some comic book or maybe a Japanese manga behind all of this. According to Wikipedia – trusted source, I know – there isn’t. The Titan is apparently an actual original concept, one which first went into development in 2015