A clever but unformed hunk of speculative science-fiction, Lennart Ruff’s “The Titan” is essentially two parallel stories of survival that are being told at the same time. One is physical and intimate; the other is abstract and infinite. Strangely, they’re both far more interesting on their own than they are cut together, but each of them poses a handful of intriguing questions about our instinct for self-preservation, asking us to locate the point at which trauma might change the basic foundation of who (or what) we are. If only these questions were posed intriguingly, and not just churned through the machinations of genre shlock that doesn’t have the courage to be as smart as either of its stories require it to be.
The year is 2048, and the Earth isn’t going to be inhabitable for all that much longer. It’s the usual cocktail of apocalyptic trouble: nuclear war, overpopulation, famine, etc. Fortunately, humanity has a hail Mary play to protect the future of the species — or at least the future of a species: Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the only object in space other than our own planet that we know to have a dense atmosphere. But while most movies of this kind might default to the idea of terraforming, Ruff’s debut doesn’t have the budget to create any kind of intergalactic ecosystem. Max Hurwitz’s script, based on an original idea by “Grace of Monaco” writer Arash Amel, has a cheaper suggestion: Instead of changing an alien place to better accommodate people, why not change people to better accommodate an alien place?
Professor Martin Collingwood (a huffing and puffing Tom Wilkinson) calls it “forced evolution.” He’s recruited a few hundred of the world’s strongest people and invited them — and their families — to join him on a secret NASA base in the Canary Islands. The government is going to inject them with a funky blue enzyme, alter them on a genetic level, and send them to the stars for two years. It doesn’t sound like a great plan, but it’s the only one they’ve got. And for Air Force pilot Rick Janssen (a standard-issue Sam Worthington), who once survived for three days with no food or water after his plane got shot down over Syria, it would hardly be the first time that he managed to defy the odds.
Despite promises of deep space travel, most of “The Titan” takes place in the sleek, futuristic corridors of the NASA facility. What begins as a training montage quickly stagnates into the entire middle section of the movie, as Rick and his fellow space cadets (notably one played by “Game of Thrones” actress Nathalie Emmanuel) are subjected to an endless battery of tests and experiments. As Rick starts to burn nitrogen for oxygen, he can soon breathe underwater for 30 minutes at a time. Between exercises, he splashes around his shimmery swimming pool with his wife, Abigail (Taylor Schilling), who’s feeling a little funny about the fact that she’s married to a glorified lab rat. It’s all extremely ponderous stuff, enlivened only by a synth-driven score and occasional appearances from the great Agyness Deyn, seen here in a thankless role as a lab technician.
The longer the experiments go on, the sicker some of the subjects get; the sicker some of the subjects get, the more ominous “The Titan” becomes. After a certain point — somewhere around the time Abigail starts peeling giant patches of skin off her sleeping husband’s back — it becomes clear the trip to Saturn’s moon is something of a red herring, and that the process of preparing for it is the real meat of the movie. But to what end? The script seems paralyzed by the uncertainty of Rick’s transformation, as though Abigail’s anxiety is seeping into the world around her.
Questions of survival persist from start to finish (what will happen to the Janssens’ marriage? What will happen to humankind?), but they go unexplored. Spliced together from a mess of surface-level scenes, the film itself is suspended between states of being. Is it a canny portrait of PTSD? A cosmic study of faith? A chronicle of when in the evolutionary process Rick stops becoming human, and starts becoming something else? Yes and no — this is a movie that’s many things and nothing all at once.
“The Titan” hedges its bets until we lose track of whose story this really is, the film so hesitant in its telling that we hardly even notice how Abigail is replacing Rick at the center of it all. Boasting the intellectual curiosity of “Annihilation” but precious little of Alex Garland’s resolve, Ruff just runs out the clock until it’s time for the third act’s inevitable descent into body horror (the creature work is eerie, even if the prosthetics summon memories of “Bright” without the courtesy of a trigger warning). His debut was only sold to Netflix after it was in the can, but this slick placebo dose of cerebral science-fiction is undeniably well-suited to the streaming platform, where it can be hard to classify what you’re watching, or know what it means for the future.
“The Titan” is now streaming on Netflix.