Bill PullmanMatt DamonRon PerlmanDrew Barrymore
Titan A.E.
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, Art Vitello
Writer: Hans Bauer, Randall McCormick, Ben Edlund, John August, Joss Whedon
Keywords: animation, SF
Country: USA
Actor: Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Nathan Lane, Janeane Garofalo, Drew Barrymore, Ron Perlman, Alex D. Linz, Tone Loc, Jim Breuer, Christopher Scarabosio, Jim Cummings, Charles Rocket, Ken Hudson Campbell, Tsai Chin, Crystal Scales, David L. Lander, Thomas A. Chantler, Elaine A. Clark, Roy Conrad, Leslie Hedger, Roger Jackson, Shannon Orrock, Alex Pels, Eric Schniewind, Stephen Stanton
Format: 94 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 15 September 2010
I think Fox interfered too much with this one. It's got that generic blandness that suggests a film made by committee. It looks great and there's nothing really wrong with it, but there's not much point in watching it either.
For some reason before watching it, I'd thought this would be entirely CGI. I was wrong, thank goodness. Of course there were all-CGI animated movies being made around this time, such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) and the opening segment of The Animatrix (2003). They're not unwatchable, but they're definitely not good. In fact they look appalling and anyone who whined about Titan A.E.'s combination of CGI backgrounds and hand-drawn characters needs to pull their head from their backside. Admittedly it looks a bit childish compared with anime like Ghost in the Shell, but you might as well give up the argument if you're having to go that far. Artistically, I think they made the right decision. Computers in 2000 could do amazing spaceships, vehicles, cosmic vistas and so on. Bring it on. It looks fantastic. I've no problems there whatsoever.
However if we're talking about people, doing them in CGI sounds less appealing than watching sock puppets. Thus the cast are hand-drawn and I like that too. It's a fairly easy style, with the aliens in particular being fun. My favourite was the sentient grasshopper chef, which couldn't be done in live-action and so is exactly the kind of thing you'd want to see in animated SF.
No, it's the story that's the problem. I didn't hate it. It's being faithful enough to the standard Hollywood formulae that there's hardly any room for it to go wrong in the first place. However it's also thin stuff, with the production stamping down any originality that might have somehow survived the scriptwriting process. Take Matt Damon's hero, for instance. He's a working joe. He has a shitty job that's basically the 31st century equivalent of a construction site worker. Thus his main character trait is "can fix machines" and his reaction to being asked to save mankind is to ask whether he's going to be paid any money for this. This isn't sparkling, but you could go somewhere with it. I remember Harry Harrison once having fun with a short story about a working-class hero. It's a personality. Unfortunately all this potentially interesting stuff is being undermined elsewhere, since he has emotional issues with his father (sigh) and is being drawn to look like a singer in a boy band. He's the blonde, well-muscled hero. In the end, that's all he is.
Note also the moment where Korso asks him to save mankind and he says no, because the scriptwriters have read Joseph Campbell. Presumably we're expected to think that Matt Damon just can't bear to say no to his life of industrial lasers, hard vacuum and getting beaten up by his co-workers for being human. Oh, and one of his first actions as an adult is to nearly get himself killed because he doesn't want to wait in a queue that contains two people.
Then you've got the aliens, the Drej. They're mean. They destroyed the Earth in the pre-credits sequence, so the movie's main story is based on the premise that the human race is scattered across space and in danger of extinction. That's pretty cool, although it would have been more impressive if I'd realised at the time that that was Earth they were destroying instead of some other random dirtball. Anyway, these Drej have a raging hard-on to exterminate mankind and I was looking forward to a clever revelation about their identity and motivations... but it never comes. They're just killer aliens. That's it. Maybe there's more, but we're not told it in the movie. We don't even know why they don't like us.
As for the other characters, they're similarly lightweight. They're watchable, but not involving. Revelations of treachery aren't shocking, but a matter of mild curiosity. There's also a silly finale in which people (including villains) repeatedly fail to kill their mortal enemies, bad guys will have an unmotivated change of heart and good guys can't die, no matter what.
This film would have worked better as anime. The plot would have been just as silly, but it would have had more sincerity. There's an earnestness to many anime characters that can carry along even the daftest plot developments on pure heart. Admittedly anime's just as prone to cookie-cutter formula, but its default settings are more human and less hollow than this. However in fairness, the filmmakers do seem to be acknowledging a debt to anime by making one of the characters a Japanese girl with purple hair. Her name's Akima. She's played by Drew Barrymore, though.
Incidentally this film flopped at the box office and Fox closed their animation studio after only two releases, the first being Anastasia (1997).
I'd known that 2000 was a bad year for horror, at least in Hollywood, but I hadn't realised it was also so bad for SF. There's Battlefield Earth, those two parallel Martian ones, this and Heavy Metal 2000. Is that it? That's all I can think of offhand, anyway. I suppose there's Pitch Black, but even that I don't really like. I suppose genre fans will be remembering this more as the start of the new superhero age with Bryan Singer's X-Men. However all that said, Titan A.E. is a perfectly watchable movie in its unambitious way. I liked the multicultural drifter colonies. The animation looks pretty. I also think the film's basic premise of a dying human race is haunting, not to mention reflected in the title since "A.E." stands for "After Earth".
Overall this film is a passable way of killing ninety minutes and it has a few nice moments, e.g. "an intelligent guard; didn't see that one coming." However it's also a MacGuffin quest movie with a mechanically constructed plot and a horror of being interesting. The hero's important for the plot because of his father's map, for goodness' sake.