BY ERIN CARBERRY '19
The newest entry in an expanding catalogue of Netflix original films, “The Titan” examines issues of humanity, survival and hope. The futuristic thriller follows Abi Janssen (Taylor Schilling, “Orange is the New Black”) as she travels to a remote base with her family so that her husband, Rick (Sam Worthington, “Avatar”), can participate in a risky military experiment in genetic evolution and space exploration. The aim of the experiment is to create a human capable of surviving on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, so the rest of humanity can one day follow. Of course, the experiment hits countless bumps along the road. The film itself follows this same pattern: while there are moments of unpredictability and opportunities for reflection on the issues the film raises, there are outnumbered by tired, old clichés and references to outdated ideology.
The most persistent problem is an overemphasis on the importance of the patriarchal, American nuclear family. The audience learns less than 10 minutes into the film that Abi gave up a promising medical career to raise her son and support her husband. She seems to have no qualms with this fact. Her rather expansive medical expertise is only used in unraveling the mysteries behind the program and to save her husband, who remains the central focus of her life. Even while the Janssen family is living on a military base, Abi recreates a typical suburban life. She befriends Reyanne (Naomi Battrick, “Jamestown”) and the two only discuss how brave and heroic their husbands are. When Reyanne expresses her doubts about the program — doubts that she explicitly states she is fearful of sharing with her husband — Abi reminds Reyanne that she is on the base because she loves her husband and that she will want her children “to grow up knowing their dad was a hero.” This reaction becomes even more troubling when Reyanne’s husband, Zane (Aaron Heffernan, “Love/Hate”), hits her at a party and later murders her in a fit of rage. Several times, Abi herself is reminded of her seemingly cardinal duty to her family when she demands answers or digs too deep.
The film exhibits a lot of Christian imagery. This is most evident in the final shot of Rick as he stands atop a cliff with his arms spread — a perfect mirror image of Christ the Redeemer. Rick is routinely positioned as the savior of humanity and as a Christlike figure. Earlier in the film, Abi tells Reyanne that she doesn’t pray “as often as she should” and later tells Rick that he “gives her faith.”
What does work about “The Titan” are its score and special effects. The subtle yet deeply unsettling soundtrack is the work of composer Fil Eisler (sometimes credited as iZLER), who has taken home some minor awards for his work on the Showtime series “Shameless” and worked with Netflix on “To The Bone” last year. However, it is the film’s mastery of special effects that stand out the most, in part because it relies on them so heavily. As Rick and the others progress through their transformation, their bodies become increasingly less human, whether it is the blue blood that can be seen under their thinning skin or Rick’s ultimate grotesque form. Had the special effects been more conspicuous, the film could have been derailed the moment a participant died or Rick’s skin began to peel. These effects also add to the horror of the numerous onscreen deaths, both of the program’s other participants and the soldiers who fight against them. Though it is categorized as a science fiction thriller, the film can at times recall horror with its claustrophobic setting, onscreen gore, and slow, unstoppable degradation of humanity.
Between the genre tropes and heavy handed moral stances, the film does feature several moments that force the audience to consider what they might do in Abi’s position. At one point, she is told that the only way for Rick to survive is for him to lose his memory, including his memory of their family, and is faced with an impossible choice. We are also given glimpses into Rick’s psyche as his body becomes more and more inhuman or when another participant dies and he is reminded of his own fragile mortality. Still, these moments of thoughtfulness are overshadowed by clunky ideology, questionable acting and a myriad of tropes in both scifi and horror films. While its 97-minute runtime is not entirely wasted, “The Titan” puts its focus in the wrong places and trips over itself right out of the gate.