Titan A.E. (2000)

D: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
S: Voices of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman

Promising story torpedoed by a dreadful script which becomes increasingly annoying at it progresses. It concerns the events which transpire when planet earth is destroyed by malevolent aliens, leaving the human race scattered throughout the galaxy forming drifting colonies or otherwise dispersed in remote locations as the dregs of galactic civilisation. One young man holds the key to reuniting the race, a star map genetically encoded into a ring given to him by his father just before the planet exploded. No, not an original notion, and yes, it is one with all kinds of political resonances which can be read any number of ways, but none of this denies the potential of this premise to make for an entertaining epic sci-fi saga. Also in its favour is the wealth of impressively designed and executed action sequences which fill out the running time incorporating a mixture of traditional and computer-generated animation. The vocal performers include Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed), Bill Pullman (Independence Day), Nathan Lane (Stuart Little), Tone Loc, John Leguizamo, and Ron Perlman. The vocal characterisations are not bad, though the character design tends towards the routine, and as the characters make less and less sense due to the failure of the script, the viewer tends to loose interest in the intricacies.

The story, credited to Hans Bauer and Randall McCormick, lends itself to the kind of multi-volume serial epics which fill out the fantasy section of most bookshops. It is a loose one, of course (more a premise than a story really), and God is always in the details in such cases, but there are some interesting specific ideas including the energy based alien baddies (who come off rather like the ringwraiths of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings), the dynamics of A.E. (After Earth) human society, and a number of plot twists which could have been effective if sufficient grounding had been provided to make them meaningful. The problem is that in trying to compress the events into an hour and a half of cinematic narrative, credited screenwriters Ben Edlund, John August, and Joss Whedon have completely botched it. It starts reasonably well, introducing our central character as a child and charting the spectacular destruction of earth in the space of a few dynamic minutes which give fleeting glimpses characters who promise to be interesting if developed (such as the alien voiced by Tone Loc who agrees to raise the boy in the absence of his father). Alas, within minutes it becomes apparent that there are going to be huge narrative gaps in this story, and we leap forward to the boy's rebellious twentysomething years where he goes through some formulaic 'rebel with a cause' action before abruptly finding himself propelled into the plot proper.

A well mounted action scene marks the transition, and so the film more or less gets away with it, but these kind of abrupt transitions continue throughout, and the gaps begin to tear the fabric of the story apart as the characters never get a chance to develop before some new twist or action scene is tossed in. Again there are some nice scenes, such as a visit to a planet populated by enigmatic, silent creatures like giant bats, and the film then suddenly arrives at an action-packed climax following a visually impressive suspense sequence set in an ice field, but the characters have by now long been lost, the story has degenerated into a series of clichéd one-liners and rock soundtrack-backed musical numbers, and the film eventually stops making sense. Characters appear and disappear suddenly during the final scenes without any explanation of how they got there or what they're doing and diagetic and narrative logic take a back seat to knee-jerk manipulation and ephemeral affect. The narration becomes asinine, offering almost no insight into why certain things are happening and not bothering to explain certain elements of technology or society which seem to be so central. As the twists and reversals continue, one gets the sense that the writers have quite literally lost the plot, until the saccharine finale desperately tries to generate a feel-good response which can't possibly override the rising bile. It feels like a bad bit of story editing done without the help of a continuity person, but the result is that by the time it ends most viewers will have lost all interest, other than those for whom lots of bright, pretty pictures flashing before their eyes is an endless source of fascination.

It is a pity that things go so badly awry, as there has clearly been quite a lot of work put into it. The action animation is good, and there are some nice flourishes, although the character animation is surprisingly unimaginative (some unusual environmental effects are superimposed over some dialogue scenes to make things look more radical than they are). There are some nice little scenes and some fascinating roads not travelled that really required a much longer and more carefully constructed narrative to take advantage of. Co-director Don Bluth has had better days (The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time), and most audiences will be rightly appalled that such expense and marketing muscle has been squandered on so poor a product. As a summer sci-fi epic, it lacks the curiosity factor of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, or even the campy amusement of watching John Travolta muddling his way through Battlefield Earth. As a children's movie (which is its only hope for box-office returns) it offers more to easily amused sub-adolescent boys than anyone else, and adults will be crying out for a projector breakdown long before the final credits roll.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.