In the mid-21st century, Earth’s biosphere is on its absolute last legs and mankind’s hopes hinge on the successful colonisation of other planets. Saturn’s moon of Titan is selected, and scientist Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) heads up a program to radically alter human volunteers to survive the incredibly harsh conditions there. One of his subjects is former pilot Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington). As the program continues and the changes wrought on Janssen become more and more radical, his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) begins to wonder if her husband still qualifies as human.
The outline of a potentially brilliant and provocative story of transhumanism is clearly discernible through the smudged window that is The Titan, a film that continually creeps right up to the edge of being interesting, but consistently refuses to take the final step beyond the mundane and predictable. It’s not a terrible movie as such, but rather a maddeningly routine one, committed to making the safest narrative choices even as it gradually transforms leading man Worthington into a hairless alien being – really, if you’re committed to reshaping your star into a little green (well, grey, actually) man, you might as well go hog wild.
The key problem is that the script, by Max Hurwitz, refuses to keep us in Janssen’s shoes, shifting our point of view to that of Abigail just as things are getting interesting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the more intriguing story here is that of a person dealing with their irreversibly changing nature. The Titan eschews that in favour of following Abigail as she investigates Collingwood’s fairly predictable malfeasance, relegating Janssen to the status of of a plot element rather than a character for large swathes of the film. His interior life gradually fades from our sight as the film progresses, until he’s as much a cipher to us as he is to the other characters – especially once his various surgeries and gene therapies cost him his voice. It’s interesting to contrast The Titan with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, which managed to keep our empathy and identification with both leads, even as it delved further and further into body horror.
The Titan is not The Fly, of course, but it is playing with similar ideas about the relationship between personhood, identity, and the body, so the comparison is a fair and damning one. No, this is another entry in Netflix’s seemingly endless string of mid-budget, middling-appeal sci-fi films they seem to be spending a lot of time and effort horse-trading for – consider it alongside Annihilation (absolutely worth your time), The Cloverfield Paradox (absolutely not), and the upcoming Extinction (anyone’s guess). The Titan sits right in the middle of the pack: well shot and designed, and sure to tick a few boxes for fans of the genre, but ploddingly written and not nearly as clever or provocative as it seems to think it is. Possibly worth a Sunday afternoon couch date when you’ve exhausted the more interesting options out there, but don’t go in expecting anything transcendent.