a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Titan A.E. gives me the same feeling you have when you find a video game that looks exciting… cool graphics, nice design… but because you don’t have any quarters to put in, you just see clips of action-packed scenes. So you stand there listening to the mysterious characters quoting clichés like “I got him!” “We’ve got to get out of here!” “Help me!”
Actually, the movie is even worse than that. Imagine stuffing quarters into the video game, taking the controls, and still nothing happens. Just the same impenetrable nonsense, and pictures of figures that never become characters.
How did a film from such talented writers (The Tick‘s Ben Edlund, Go screenwriter John August, and Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and great animators (Don Bluth’s studio) turn into the summer’s biggest disaster?
Titan A.E. first trumpeted its approach as a trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and it truly is a Star Wars wanna-be. But with characters as flat in personality as they are in the way they are drawn, with its reproachful bland-rock soundtrack, and with no sense of pace or purpose, Titan A.E. might as well be Titanic A.E. (as in, the ship that sunk, not the movie that scored.)
Worst of all is the story, or lack of it. In the opening act, we find ourselves a thousand years in the future. Earth is under attack by a random menace called the Drej. A military man (tall, handsome, deep voice, Caucasian… he must be heroic!) sends his son Cale to freedom in a fleet of escaping spaceships, then devotes himself to the escaping himself in a very special ship, the Titan, a craft that supposedly holds a secret that will give human beings a new start.
Jump ahead sixteen years and the boy, Cale (Matt Damon), is working in a space salvage yard. We don’t know what his life has been like; but we do know humans are considered scum by the host of alien races who, of course, speak English. (Well, evil aliens don’t speak english. They get subtitles. At least in Star Wars, speaking a foreign language was not a sign of malevolence.) Cale has inherited his father’s look, so we can clearly identify him as the hero. He’s a social outcast. But he must not feel too far from home… his alien co-workers look like Disney animals that ended up on the cutting room floor. They include a shell-less turtle named Gune and a giant gun-toting kangaroo who make Jar Jar Binks seem like a charming, suave companion.
Then, out of the blue, a heroic scoundrel named Korso (Bill Pullman) arrives to reveal that Cale’s DNA holds the secret map to his father’s spaceship, the Titan. Find the Titan, Korso says, and you’ll find the salvation of the human race. Cale reluctantly joins them and, of course, immediately the Drej are pursuing them, trying to prevent them from succeeding. And of course, the pilot is a sexy young lady just Cale’s age, named Akima (Drew Barrymore). Akima flies them through an hour of various chase scenes, and it’s quite a dazzling tour.
Of course, they get chased by those CGI aliens that destroyed earth, a cruel race of fearsome neon-blue creatures that do nothing but hunt and shoot. These aliens have fluid motion, look realistic, and thus have a vast advantage over the staccato-motion, hand-drawn humans. Of course, our heroes desperately navigate in and out of wild Star Wars-like landscapes to escape. (There might be actual shots from Star Wars in here somewhere; if I could slow it down to frame-by-frame, I’ll bet I could find one.) Of course, Cale and Akima fall in love. Of course, there’s a hologram message from father to son, a la The Lion King or Star Wars. And of course it ends with one relentless cliffhanger after another. Each formula landmark is reached with a sort of breathless “There! We got that out of the way… what’s next?”
Why does Akima suddenly decide she loves Cale? Why do some aliens like the humans, and others don’t? How can some humans communicate with the Drej, who, to all appearances, kill any human on sight? And what are these aliens? There seems to be only one of each of them, and they all seem constructed from pieces of Saturday morning cartoon characters. How did Cale’s father die? Why are there no signs of struggle on the Titan when they finally find it? The movie is in such a hurry, so terrified that it will lose the attention of its audience, that none of these questions are explained, and nothing has a chance to resonate.
I will admit that the animation artists have created the best sci-fi environments since Phantom Menace. The forest of hydrogen trees — a vast field of floating, glowing, golden orbs — is a three-dimensional wonder. The ice crystals in space recall the asteroid field of The Empire Strikes Back, but their intricate reflective quality make them a labyrinth of mirrors, making it hard to guess where the spaceships navigating through them really are.
But it is as though a terrible, rough-draft animated movie crashlanded in this one, stranding unfinished characters in a beautiful environment where they can only quote other, far better sci-fi films. (At one point, when a spaceship refuses to start just when the heroes need to escape, the spunky heroine actually says, “Would it help if I got out and pushed?” Princess Leia should sue.)
And shame on the casting coordinator. Bill Pullman’s voice couldn’t be more inappropriate for the husky, authoritative scoundrel Korso. Matt Damon must have done this for the money; he sounds bored and as uninteresting as Cale himself. Drew Barrymore, as the asian babe Akima, sounds like she’s reading her lines for the first time. It’s the first time watching an animated film that I’ve been made aware of the presence of a mircrophone into which an actor speaks; her lines have a strange, isolated quality, as though they were added late in the production.
By the last act, I was so uninterested in these people going through the motions that I got up and left. So I can’t tell you how it ends. Wait, give me a second, let me guess….