The Titan (2018)

The Titan first published by Sight & Sound, May 2018

Review: “We did it!” declares Professor Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) near the end of Lennart Ruff’s feature debut The Titan. “We stole fire from the gods!”  

Collingwood’s words evoke the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who indeed stole divine fire, gifting it to humanity as an aid to progress. This is a dynamic, multivalent allusion – for at a time (in the near future) when human progress is being brought to an end by environmental degradation, deletion of resources and global wars, the geneticist Collingwood is a Frankenstein figure, creating, like the Doctor of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel (subtitled The Modern Prometheus), a new monstrous form of man – although not from body parts and galvanism, but rather from the ‘forced evolution’ of patients through genetic hybridisation and adaptive surgery. With most of Earth itself soon to be uninhabitable, scientists are, as Collingwood puts it, “no longer trying to reshape planets in our image, but evolving humanity into the stars” – and so he is racing to alter subjects’ DNA so that they will be able to survive in the hostile atmosphere of Titan (Saturn’s moon, named for Prometheus’ species). Though well-intended and under immense pressure, Collingwood is also arrogant and hubristic, and will ultimately, like Prometheus, be punished for his efforts, while his most promising subject, the veteran military pilot and proven survivor Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington), will end up transformed into a new form of human – bald and bulky – resembling nothing less than an alien ‘Engineer’ from, indeed, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012).  

Worthington has been somewhere like this before, merging the mind of his human character with the form of an extra-terrestrial Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) so that he could survive on the moon Pandora. The events of The Titan, however, unfold mostly on Earth, tracking Rick’s and other selected volunteers’ involvement in Collingwood’s programme. In an accelerated case of survival of the fittest, some of these super-evolved humans take well to breathing underwater and seeing in the dark, while others are let down, sometimes fatally, by pre-existing health issues, emotional problems or domestic dysfunction. At first Collingwood recognises that Rick’s psychological suitability for the programme hinges upon the support of his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) and young son Lucas, who are allowed to live with him on the base in a luxurious ‘new-build’ home – but then, as Rick starts undergoing irreversible changes, Collingwood tries to sever Rick’s attachments to the people anchoring him to life on Earth, with instability and violence the inevitable outcome. As these conflicting perspectives – Collingwood’s obsessive drive to complete the mission, Abigail’s loving concern and Rick’s increasing alienation – are cross-cut and triangulated, The Titan grows akin to Zack Snyder’s recent trilogy of films about metahumans (Man of Steel, 2013; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016; Justice League, 2017), only without the superheroics. For this is a film concerned with the strains, not just physical but also mental and even existential, on those pioneers at the boundary between human, alien and god.

Synopsis: America, the future. With the world becoming uninhabitable, veteran pilot Rick Janssen, his paediatrician wife Abigail and young son Lucas are brought with other families to a secret NATO base. Rick and others have been selected for their extreme survival skills to participate in Professor Collingwood’s ‘Titan Program’, in which they will undergo genetic therapies aimed at evolving their bodies to be able to survive on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Owing to his own drive, and to the loving support of his family, Rick copes emotionally and physically with this bodily changes, and buddies up to help fellow patient Tally Rutherford also cope. Patient Vita Ramos, however, suffers fatal organ failure, while Zane Gorski is shot after angrily beating his wife to death. With Rick now able to breathe underwater, resist cold and see in the dark, Abigail investigates Collingwood’s work, and discovers that he is hybridising his subjects with DNA from different animals. After the incident with Zane, Collingwood reveals that he has been creating a new species, Homo Titanius, and insists that all subjects must undergo radical surgery in order to survive their bodily changes. Only Rick and Tally, now voiceless and monstrous, make it through the surgery. After Tally murders her husband, Rick intervenes when soldiers kill her, killing several soldiers himself. Abigail disobeys Collingwood’s instructions to administer medication that will erase Rick’s memory of his earthly attachemnts, supposedly to stabilise his emotions. Soldiers arrest the increasingly megalomaniac Collingwood. Rick makes it to Titan, alone.

© Anton Bitel