Thursday, May 28, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Titan A.E. (2000)

For the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood organized by my friend Nick, we watched the 2000 animated science fiction film Titan A.E. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In the year 3028 AD, Earth was destroyed by the alien Drej, reducing the human survivors to the disdained homeless people of the galaxy on the slow path to extinction. However, young Cale Tucker, son of a scientist who created the mysterious Titan, might (literally) have the key to humanity's future on his hand. Cale and his dubious human and alien allies have to race against the Drej to secure the Titan, facing all sorts of adventures along the way.

The Good

*Animation in the United States is generally viewed as something for kids only, but outside of the U.S. there's animation for all age levels. Britain had When The Wind Blows, Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs, while Japan gave us The Grave of the Fireflies and an anime version of Starship Troopers, on top of Akira and a bunch of other anime I'm less familiar with. All of these (with the possible exception of the Starship Troopers one) are incredibly dark. War of the Worlds: Goliath with all its sex and violence was made in Malaysia, although that might've been due to production costs rather than the country's film culture. 

Titan A.E. if it were a live-action film would've been PG-13 or R. There's the opening destruction of the Earth in a far more scary, genocidal fashion than the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars, a lot of gunfights with blood and on-screen deaths, somebody getting their neck snapped, some non-sexual nudity, and a rather suggestive scene in which a female character tells a male character "in or out" (of her room) while wearing only a towel. 

This might be why the film was such a failure at the box office--it was marketed to children, for whom it might not be that appropriate, but animation is generally viewed as kiddie fare by adults--but I will give Don Bluth and friends props for the courage needed to escape the paradigm and make an animated movie for adult sci-fi audiences.

*The beginning of the movie is still pretty impressive. It starts out with a bang with the human refugees fleeing Earth while the Drej ravage the fleeing spacecraft while their planet-killer moves into position. And then when the Earth is blown up, flying chunks of debris take out several spacecraft and even seriously screw up the Moon. I'd feared the special effects wouldn't hold up (in particular the CGI), but watching it on Kindle in HD it still looked pretty cool.

Plus there's an early introduction to the young Joseph Korso that I don't remember noticing when I saw the movie the first time. He's the soldier whom Cale's father addresses briefly when he's going to launch the Titan. He'll be quite important later on.

*The film does explore racial issues in kind of a subtle way--a couple of thuggish aliens warn Cale that they don't like his "attitude" and one of them says he's being "uppity." That word, when applied to black Americans, has certain racist connotations. If the idea is to teach (white people) a lesson about racism by depicting the Aryan-looking Cale getting oppressed by a couple space monsters, that's a clever way to do it.

*The film generally moves along at a pretty brisk pace. By 23 minutes in, we know the basic plot--that Cale is necessary for finding the Titan and saving humanity from eventually extinction--and there've been some exciting action scenes, including an invasion of the space station where Cale lives by a squad of murderous Drej. There is an exception to this, which I'll get to later.

*The creators remembered there's such a thing as Newtonian physics. During the Drej assassination attempt on Cale, the station's artificial gravity is shut off and people get propelled by the recoil of their guns like little rockets. And when Cale and Korso eject from their crippled shuttle after escaping the station, Korso uses the shuttle's fire extinguisher to propel them through the vacuum onto his ship. And when a character is shot in zero gravity, his blood floats in spheres.

*There are some really impressive landscapes and space-scapes, including an incredibly dangerous field of ice and debris where one ship hunts another like a pair of submarines in a WWII movie.

*Two major characters are an interracial couple (white Anglo-American and apparently Japanese) and nobody cares. In a future with aliens I imagine intra-human differences are going to be less important (and people prone to disliking "out-groups" will have an even more blatant target), plus when humanity is slowly going extinct I doubt people will be that picky about their partner's pigmentation (or even culture, for that matter).

The Bad

*In the opening scene, we see human fighters in the air as the ships lift off with the refugees, but in orbit the Drej fighters are massacring defenseless civilian spacecraft. Where were the fighters? The opening space sequence is already so busy that I doubt adding a couple dogfights would be impossible. Just remove a couple civilian ships if there's a risk of overcrowding.

*I didn't like a lot of the dialogue. Some of it was too on the nose, while other times it didn't feel realistic.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle, complete with an unnecessary scene where Korso lets Cale take his ship, the Valkyrie, for a spin in a nebula. Given how they're racing the Drej for the Titan, one would think there'd be a little bit of urgency.

*The song on the soundtrack when we first see Cale as an adult working in a spacecraft salvage yard is really annoying. The same with the song playing when Cale and Akima and the people of a drifter colony rebuild a derelict spacecraft.

*It's not clear why this bird-like alien race help Cale and his friends at the risk of getting attacked by the Drej. A bit more explanation would have been helpful.

*A character's treachery only has the barest foreshadowing. It would be a lot better if this person was being evasive or obviously not telling Cale the whole truth from the beginning. Instead the character seems like a pretty honest friend and even an idealist (in contrast to the cynical Cale, who grew up bullied by aliens and has a chip on his shoulder)...until they suddenly become a belligerent, selfish cynic who, later in the movie, becomes downright zealous in his attempts to kill Cale. Even if it's not clear to Cale that this person isn't trustworthy, there should have been more hints dropped earlier. And the character's apparent rationale for treachery--that the Drej can't be beaten due to being "pure energy" and so they might also well get what they can as humanity dies out--is ridiculous given how many of them that get killed with human weapons in the first part of the film. And another character's motivation for treachery doesn't make too much sense and comes out of nowhere.

*The derelict spacecraft two characters refurbish initially looks a lot bigger, like it's an integral part of the space station. It seemed odd that the other people on the station would allow them to just make off with it. Once it's actually launched it's more clear that this was the space equivalent of a car left on top of cinder blocks in someone's front yard.

*Not all the special effects have held up. There are a fair number of scenes where the Valkyrie  (and the derelict ship, refurbished as the Phoenix) are obvious rendered models moving around a world made of cel animation. The same with the Drej aliens themselves. The Drej situation could be defended on artistic grounds, since they're energy beings as opposed to made of meat and this would emphasize just how alien they are. However, they still look a tad bit too video-gamey for me. This culminates in the denouement of the film after the climactic last confrontation with the Drej, as a cel-animated landscape transforms into a world resembling that of the first Myst game in a very dated CGI way. According to TVTropes, production had gotten very rushed at this point, which might explain it.

(According to TVTropes the film had a rather long and troubled production process, which could explain many of its flaws.)

The Verdict

Good, but flawed. Could have been great. 8.0 out of 10.0. Definitely see it once.

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