VOD Double Feature: Mute, The Titan (Netflix).
Netflix is doubling down on science fiction offerings lately, so I decided to double down on a review of two of their latest: Mute and The Titan.
We discussed the way Netflix hones in on content creation with sophisticated algorithms in our most recent podcast. It seems that whatever numbers the streaming provider is seeing, they must be screaming “science fiction!” Almost all of the high profile original programs released this year have been in that category, from the surprise debut of The Cloverfield Paradox to the much hyped release of the series Altered Carbon. In April, Netflix released a pair of science fiction movies in The Titan and Mute. While they are very different films, they share structural features that make it interesting to compare and contrast the two.
Part 1: Mute (2018).
Leo (Alexander Skaarsgard ), a man mute from childhood due to a tragic accident, lives a solitary life in the futuristic city of Berlin. Raised in the Amish tradition, the man never received surgery to repair his damaged throat and has a general aversion to all of the high tech conveniences that surround him. Working as a bartender for a shady businessman, he falls in love with a free-spirited waitress named Nadirah who has a troubled past of her own. When her secrets catch up to her, Leo must confront smugglers, tech pirates, outlaw cybernetic surgeons and Nadirah’s AWOL ex husband Cactus (Paul Rudd) in order to find her.
Too Many People Talking.
Mute is essentially two movies smashed together, and it has the expanded run-time to prove it. At two hours and change, Mute is entirely too long. The story of Leo takes forever to develop, and just as you feel like you are starting to get some traction the narrative jerks over to Cactus’ story. I can understand why Cactus is given so much time: he’s played by Paul Rudd, who has a lot more recognition-factor than Alexander Skaarsgard, and there’s a twist in the last act that doesn’t work if you don’t get to know Cactus first. The problem is that Cactus is a crummy character, he’s played in a schizophrenic manner by the script and Rudd, and the twist is hardly interesting enough to justify spending time with this scum-bucket character.
Not Saying Very Much of Interest.
The bifurcated story robs Mute of much impact by marginalizing the main character. The story should really be focused on Leo instead of trying to flesh out other characters who wind up being only useful to the story for brief moments and so don’t require all the time they get. Leo should be front and center, but I think director Duncan Jones (Moon) realized that there’s not a whole lot going on with Leo as a character.
He’s simple in every sense of the word, and his motivations and actions are equally uncomplicated. His simplicity is a pale shadow of Jean Reno’s character Leon in Luc Besson’s The Professional. There the fact that Leon was child-like set his character, a vicious assassin, apart by playing off expectations and giving him a counterpoint to the violence he was capable of. Skaarsgard and Jones are instead playing into stereotype by making a mute Amish guy present as feeble minded. There’s not much to the character, and unfortunately not much to Skaarsgard’s performance other than looking forlornly at the camera before indulging in occasional spurts of violence.
Duncan Jones noted drawing inspiration from Ridely Scott’s Blade Runner. Unfortunately, this homage is only skin deep. Near-future Berlin looks exactly like Scott’s near-future LA. There are some lovely shots, and cool moments when Jones uses the electronic backgrounds essentially as inter-titles, but it’s just window dressing for a story that barely makes use of its futuristic setting. Some tantalizing details are teased but never paid off: why are there so many American GI’s in Berlin? Why are most of them AWOL? Some unmentioned event seems to have plunged Germany back into the Cold War era occupation status. These would have been more interesting to explore than Leo’s straightforward revenge story or Cactus’ convoluted family drama.
Part 2: The Titan (2018).
A military family moves to a remote base to participate in a top secret project. With the world experiencing devastation due to climate change and war, one group of maverick researchers believes that they can bio-engineer astronauts who can withstand the punishing atmosphere on Saturn’s moon, Titan. These new humans, imbued with almost super-human power, will establish a colony that will become the new home for mankind. Things don’t quite go according to plan.
Know What You’re Signing Up For.
The promotional material made me feel like I was going to get a space exploration movie. Be advised, there is no space exploration in this movie! The whole story is about the brutal process which the candidates endure for a chance to go to Titan. When it cottoned on to that, I was A-OK with what The Titan was offering…I just spent the first 30 minutes wondering when we were going to space! It seems from a perusal of Rotten Tomatoes that others felt that it was a squandered opportunity to not get into the excitement of the actual mission. I actually found the deliberate and cerebral exploration of how people would go about getting ready for such a radical mission to be worth attention. My problem is that the film gives up in the last 30 minutes and goes for lazy horror instead of smart science fiction.
The Missing Link.
Much like Mute, The Titan suffers from a shift in perspective. Instead of jerking between two leads, Titan has a gradual shift where you start firmly in the perspective of Jack (Sam Worthington), a decorated soldier and the test subject most likely to survive the training and medical enhancements, but by about half way through we’ve slowly shifted over to Abigail, a medical researcher and Jack’s wife.
This is a smart decision in theory, since the treatments begin to rob Jack of his ability to relate and communicate with the normal people around him, and because Abigail could give us much needed insight into the procedures. An ebb and flow between Jack’s increasingly isolated experience and Abigail’s detective work would have been ideal, but the film is reluctant to explore either of these too deeply and then both become irrelevant when the final act begins.
“A High-Powered Mutant…Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die.”
The Titan is a weird assemblage of parts that almost worked. I thought the acting was decent, especially since Sam Worthington has not previously impressed me with Avatar or Clash of the Titans. There is a compelling story about a man going beyond his limits for his family, only to realize that testing his limits has become an end in of itself. There is a military family drama, and a nod towards the struggle of the people left behind. There is a bit of body horror in the vein of The Fly or The Wolf Man. It all takes a while to get off the ground, flies for about a hundred yards…and then crashes and burns in a flame out at the end. If the film had ended 30 minutes early right after the final round of genetic adaptations had kicked in for Jack, it would have been a stark and thoughtful ending. That it continues with a senseless action sequence and a muddled resolution is a shame, since The Titan certainly had potential.