In the end, all well-meaning, but near-sighted journeys into the undiscovered and unexplainable, driven by a need to understand things and concepts beyond our immediate comprehension, become bureaucratic nightmares. At least, such is the predominant crux of post-apocalyptic science fiction in which the government or governmental agencies step in to posture their superior intellectual authority. In relation to the not-so-distant horror genre, philosopher Eugene Thacker theorizes the Earth and its waves of monsters and other existential/corporeal threats as imagining a world without humans. If we are to relate this hypothesis to movies like Lennart Ruff’s The Titan, it isn’t such an astronomical stretch to suggest that humanity itself and its factually-unsubstantiated ambitions are our greatest enemy.
Which feels somewhat appropriate as Ruff’s feature-length debut contains the body count of an ‘80s slasher flick, minus the graceless narrative structure and infrequently endearing camp. Though The Titan clearly does not, even cannot fall into similar trappings, it does capitulate to oft-repeated and, in this case, underexplored thematic underpinnings asked of veteran sci-fi consumers, as well as unfocused storytelling that makes the end product feel both 20 minutes too long and too short. It’s creative enough by way of its premise to warrant yet another explanation as to why humans have no business playing god, but where it goes with its promising setup is nowhere near as interesting as the myriad of possibilities viewers will inevitably fantasize for themselves.
Just like the depicted scientists running the expansive research base whose disconnectedness from reality and weakened authority is eventually exposed and torn asunder, Ruff and writer Max Hurwitz progressively lose command of their material the further they diverge from philosophical ground most worth covering. With the two facilitating sci-fi’s default reason for gradual world decay and destruction to ground the story in some semblance of reality, overpopulation has ravaged the environment and its resources to the point where half the world’s population will starve to death in 15 years. World governments have resigned themselves that they cannot reverse what has been wrought, so NATO members devote seemingly generous funding to using select candidates to develop a new race of humans capable of inhabiting Titan, one of Saturn’s moons whose environment closely resembles Earth’s.
At the story’s center are Dr. Janssen (Schilling) and her husband Lieutenant Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington), one of the chosen guinea pigs for Professor Martin Collingwood’s (Tom Wilkinson) relentless experimentation. Occupying an endless array of frames desaturated and overemphasizing pale, gloomy blues, their family arrives on the base amidst unfound luxury, put up in a dream home overlooking remaining sources of natural beauty and told of community amenities that include a grocery store, a cinema and even a mall. With a portion of the plot inevitably reserved for research participants transcending traditional humanoid status, initial suspicions lean toward a potential parallel between the inherent biological difficulties in adjusting to foreign DNA supplements and normal citizens struggling to adapt to a post-consumer capitalist society considering the increasing scarcity of resources.
After around 35 minutes of near inactivity in a film already kept to just 97 minutes in length, however, The Titan takes a turn for more obvious, though still somewhat auspicious territory – the dire consequences of meddling with nature. At this point, we’re hoping for a greater view into what these worst-case outcomes mean for the participants, though particularly Lieutenant Janssen and his evolution’s effect on his family, but that’s an image of which we aren’t granted the full dimensions. The story intermittently hints at the significance lying within each scene, but rarely if ever provides us direct evidence suggesting anything other than creative stifling or filmmaker detachment. In particular, if Schilling’s Janssen ever feels disappointingly developed, then Worthington’s Janssen is as barren as the narrative’s vision of Earth.
To be slightly fair to the performers, even if their portrayals often lack the emotional thrust needed to kick the narrative into high gear whilst their leaders behind the lens achieve nothing, the plot does them no favors with its inability to focus on any subplot driving us through. Whether it be the bonds of the Janssen marriage tested by Rick’s physical changes, Abigail’s helplessness turning to rebellion in the face of a once-trusted entity and friend or the legal and existential complications posed by the program’s persisting failures, Ruff and Hurwitz allow us nothing on which to grasp. Content to slowly amble through one moment of faint, unrealized ambition to another, they watch as their project wastes away under the crushing weight of their perceived apathy. It’s a collection of random events that add up to nothing, though at least the view is pretty and slick enough to take in.
Beauty, however, cannot disguise boredom. Arguably, it’s a cardinal sin for a film this purportedly high-minded, at least on the surface, to be this intellectually, even narratively ineffectual. It isn’t one to swell up a storm of disapproval and raging discontent, though it additionally hasn’t the aptitude to quell either reaction. Mediocrity holds firm sway as the film temporarily boasts of big ideas only to keep them at their least thoughtful and most confined. The Titan’s setting may as well be a free-range rat cage, and perhaps Ruff and Hurwitz are equally guilty of cornering themselves, imprisoning their capabilities while the audience makes their own half-hearted projections toward deeper meaning and emotional significance.
It’s a good thing Netflix exists for films such as these, especially considering the saturated market Hollywood has become in nearly all corners of the calendar. Maybe The Titan could have found a comfortable home in January, though even then, it might have performed just as well financially as relegating itself to streaming service hell – at least with the latter there’s greater certainty involved regarding accessibility. Certainly, in this film’s case, however, accessibility maybe ought not have been one of the first issues addressed.