New Netflix Movie 'The Titan' Is Body Horror Without the Body

About midway through The Titan, Lieutenant Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington), star subject of an experimental trial to modify humans for colonization of Saturn's moon Titan, goes for a midnight swim. His nitrogen-rich blood lets him hold his breath for more than 42 minutes, but something's off: his skin is peeling away in huge strips, which float in glutinous folds, like the husks of Scarlett Johansson's victims in Under the Skin. It's not quite so dramatic as Seth Brundle's transformation in The Fly, but it's a recognizable and low-key moment of body horror in an otherwise antiseptic sci-fi movie.

The world is dying —in The Titan too. Earth has become a Malthusian trap, with half the world's population expected to starve. Like in the dreams of Elon Musk and other population-obsessed billionaires, The Titan solution to mass die-off from resource crunch is, for some reason, to send a handful of people at great expense to a place where sustaining life is even harder. If developing a single dude capable of breathing on an alien planet costs $300 million, how exactly is this a scalable solution for Earth? Anyway, good luck finding all the cheap labor for your Taskrabbits on Titan, billionaires!

Worthington, who brings his typical placidity to The Titan, plays one of a handful of international military heroes and toughs assigned to a secret NATO project to force evolution forward so humans might one day populate planets with vastly different biomes—instead of terraforming, we change ourselves. Here enters the body horror.

Apart from its impracticality it's a fun idea, so it's too bad their transformation into Titan creatures is more technobabble than transformation. The super soldier's impressive feats mostly involve holding their breath for a long time and enduring really, really cold water, not exactly the most cinematic displays of bodily alienation. The final result looks an awful lot like Dren in Splice (with a touch of Power Rangers), but for most of The Titan, their transformations are frustratingly invisible, or simply stated.

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"HPA-axis reprogramming, methane lipid bilayer injections, G-force training underwater," is a typical line. But instead of a fun flavor additive, The Titan's infodumps often stand in for more visceral demonstrations of their physical mutations. Most of what Janssen endures comes out of a needle, or under sterile, laboratory conditions. Occasionally someone drops dead or snaps, but it's always sudden, never gradual. The body horror genre thrives on disgust, shame and goo, all qualities lacking in The Titan. Even the location—a remote island military base—carefully avoids the chaos we're told is washing over the world, cloistering its characters.

Once Dr. Abigail Janssen (Taylor Schilling), Rick's wife, starts investigating the experimental program, sneaking into the labs of Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson), The Titan takes a sillier turn, with a distinctly Dr. Moreau-flavored curve The Titan should have leaned into. Instead, its straight-faced tone strains against the mounting plot shortcuts, from the army's bizarre tendency to gun down the world's most valuable, intensively worked-on humans, to the seeming casualness everyone has toward the difficulties of the experiment's other half: actually sending someone to live on Titan.

The Titan attempts a hybrid of body horror and more world-aware science fiction. But the more the plot depends on sci-fi scenarios, like over-population and space travel, the further it gets from the intimacies of a man unsure whether he's dying or transforming into something new. Unsure of its small story, The Titan tells a bigger one, but loses its most powerful possibilities in the process, just as Janssen loses the ability to speak or share with us all the strange things he's experiencing.