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The Titan (2018)

The Titan was directed by Lennart Ruff (Nocebo, Wild Republic), and written by Max Hurwitz (Hell on Wheels) and Arash Amel (Hidden Strike, Rise). It stars Sam Worthington (Sabotage, The Last Son), Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black, The Lucky One), Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, Ford v Ferrari), Tom Wilkinson (SAS: Red Notice, The Debt) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones, F9). It follows a man as he’s genetically altered to better survive on Titan as a last-ditch effort to save humanity.

The Plot: As speculative sci-fi dramas go, The Titan has potential that’s dulled by repetition. Putting a man on “x” is always an interesting question, but Hurwitz is only able to set up the justification and some of the ways this movie’s program is destined to go wrong, without delivering on the possibilities he offers.

Air Force pilot Rick Janssen (Worthington), his wife Abi (Schilling), and their son Lucas (Jupe) have accepted an offer of safety from the usual symptoms of cataclysm; including but not limited to nuclear war and famine. We’re never pitched the ideas that the Janssens are given by Professor Collingwood (Wilkinson) but we are shown why they’d take the offer. They’re given a nice place to live with all the amenities one could ask for, courtesy of NATO, in return for Rick’s body as a test tube along with plenty of others including friendly rival Tally (Emmanuel). The Titan goes in the usual directions, slight distrust, lulling into security, and the ping-ponging of optimism and hopelessness between various tests.

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Thankfully, the movie does vary its tests and therapies, showing the progression from minor injections of shots to Rick being able to breathe underwater for upwards of 40 minutes. This is directed and acted with confidence to a point, but around halfway in, The Titan has run through its ideas. Although Rick’s transformation is still taking place, the script doesn’t touch on the corruption of the program or the body horror of the premise, letting it shamble along until a whiff of an ending.

Taken only for its first 40-ish minutes or slimmed to a short, The Titan could’ve been a solid, space-bound version of The Fly, but the confidence shown by everyone involved evaporates before it gets the chance to become what it should.

The Characters: For what’s supposed to be just as much of a character study as it is a case study, The Titan offers near-zero characterization beyond watching the subjects, rather justifiably, freak out over the changes they witness themselves and each other go through.

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Rick is a typical family man dealing with atypical circumstances. He’s eager to join this program if it means getting to save his family in due time, no matter what he must go through. Brief moments are given to his relationships with the other subjects which help to colour in that skeletal framework of a character, such as his support of Tally and her husband; but Hurwitz is stingy with development.

Abi and Lucas exist to cast doubt on the program once some of the adverse effects pop up, but again are perfunctory pawns in the bigger picture. Hints of her distancing from Rick due to his immense changes by the end of the movie, but there’s not much for her to stray from since the both of them are so hollow. Tally and the others don’t have much impact either, aside from being samples of what’s possibly going to be Rick’s fate if the tests aren’t successful.

For a movie chronicling the changes these people go through over strenuous experiments to be good, it needed to dive into their lives. Instead, it just glimpses.

The Drama: As for the examination of how the unnamed program shapes the drama, it’s skin deep and written thin. Hurwitz decides to push the emotion aside for most of the runtime in lieu of prosthetics, and tries to reintroduce it in the last 20 minutes to a significantly dimmed effect.

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Rick and the others begin with minor changes compared to what’s to come in the final act. Physical transformations of the plan and the characters are the areas in which the dramatic aim of The Titan is able to deliver. Seeing Rick lose portions of his skin and his sight are evocative pieces of weird science, and drags the movie along until he’s fully transformed. His final form doesn’t work for The Titan, though, as it literally mutes Worthington and only allows him to laboriously perform basic actions. In the moment, these tangible changes are dramatically engaging, but in the past tense, they’re just flat.

Seeing how the movie sidesteps away from developing emotional drama in the first two-thirds only to attempt to prod at what all of these tests mean for the man they’re performed on just doesn’t sit right. A handful of minor conversations between Abi and Collingwood poke at the ideas of just how far these tests can go before Rick can still be considered human bring some hope for a rebound, but Ruff denies the opportunities and substitutes a couple of action scenes and a single kiss between the Janssens, perhaps in acknowledgement of the flop that would’ve occurred if he did.

The Titan’s drama has brief moments of lucidity and a handful of body horror nods but, like its treatment of character, glosses over its potential to focus on the physical rather than the human.

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The Technics: Ruff has some talent in him if this feature debut is anything to go by. He’s able to handle the script until it loses traction and has some flair that counters the sparse production and set design which, while understandably limited, feels more like a cost-based decision than a stylistic one. Ruff did choose Jan-Marcello Kahl (Wild Republic, We are the Wave), his cinematographer, very well as he makes a movie that stiffens up with regularity feel fluid.

Pacing can become a slight issue at times – with slumps that show Rick swimming in silence a common occurrence in the first hour and some stretches meant for remembering the past between Rick and Abi floundering as there was never a hint of what their previous life was like. Hurwitz’s insistence on creating a villain out of Collingwood is unnecessary, and a few other decisions slip into formula, again showing a wavering sense of confidence in the material.

The Titan has a compelling first 35 minutes but sidelines its potential for makeup effects that, while creative, relegate the story and its drama to the backburner. After trying to backpedal and whiffing its chance, the movie ends as a painfully mixed bag.

The Titan is available to stream on Netflix.

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