Our relationship with the human body is rather odd and full of conflict. It’s an element that stays with us our entire lives, and the source of many pleasures and pains. Those aspects have pushed science fiction to explore the possibility of enhancing our qualities and reducing our flaws thanks to treatments where there’s a risk of losing our humanity. Netflix’s The Titan is rooted in this concept, and its effort ends up somewhere in the middle of the road.
Earth’s resources have been depleted by war and pollution, and it’s only a matter of time before the planet becomes inhabitable. To ensure humanity’s survival, a group of scientists develop an ambitious project where a pilot with elevated survival skills (Sam Worthington) will have his body transformed to live in Titan: Saturn’s largest moon and a potential new home.
From the get-go, something that stands out is the fact that this story takes place in a planet where everything went south, yet everything you see resembles an insurance commercial. This lack of communion between the movie’s stakes and its aesthetics fails to convey a very much needed sense of urgency and chaos. It’s kind of difficult to feel worried about that world when the people in it seem pretty comfortable. They even have barbecues. The whole end-of-the-world landscape is just window dressing and forgotten for the majority of the movie.
At first, The Titan does a fairly compelling job getting you curious about the experiments the protagonist will go through to change. But once you get to the half-way point, you can’t help but notice that the plot doesn’t seem to be moving forward. The movie’s goal is to slowly escalate the horror the protagonist is going through in the experiments, but it doesn’t structure it in a way that informs character, context or theme. It’s also another aspect where the overly clean production design and cinematography keeps us at arms length from the characters’ experience.
If you’re familiar with Sam Worthington’s previous work as a leading man, then you already know what to expect here. That is to say he remains spectacularly stoic for the most part and just about watchable enough to not make the ride a complete chore to sit through. However, Worthington’s lack of range becomes particularly problematic when you consider this is a movie about a man becoming a fundamentally different creature. We’re supposed to feel heartbroken to witness an individual losing everything that defines who he is. Unfortunately, Worthington doesn’t vary his performance to a point where you get the impression that the events in the story are molding the protagonist’s attitude and personality. All the changes we see are strictly of the biological type.
The plot may revolve around Worthington’s character, but its true heart is in Taylor Schilling, who plays his wife. Switching to her perspective is a prudent choice, because oddly enough, the shock and trauma of the protagonist’s transformation is more tangible in his wife than it is in the protagonist himself, and that’s 100% on Schilling. She does an admirable job giving some warmth and dignity to a thankless role that deprives her of agency by limiting her to be an observer that can do nothing but wallow in her sorrow. That’s a problem that doesn’t only affect her character. Every situation in the movie happens because an invisible script-force says it’s supposed to rather than a series of decisions with logical payoffs.
To the movie’s credit, there’s a point where it stops pretending to be a sympathetic character study and decides to go for a more schlocky angle (even though it still takes itself pretty seriously). Nevertheless, it’s too little too late to make us care about how these characters are going to end, and the action is not flashy enough to catch the eye. The fact that some of it is kept off-screen doesn’t help either.
Although it’s never annoying or boring, The Titan is a frustrating sci-fi exercise because it’s stuck in a weird limbo. Part of its DNA is of claustrophobic monster romps in the vein of Deep Blue Sea, but it lacks the confident direction to make for a fun time. There’s also a potentially interesting analysis to be made about the idea of changing who you are for a bigger cause and the consequences it implies, but its underwritten script doesn’t seem interested in anything beyond relishing the morbid side of metamorphosis. It’s not very successful at that either, since it’s is portrayed with all the dread you feel when you enter an Apple Store.