Greetings from Planet Bob
At the end of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s animated Titan A.E., after the ragtag group of humans have saved themselves and found a new planet (and I am really not giving anything away, the trailers and title A.E. means “After Earth” tell you that humanity is in the market for a new home), our young hero Cale (voiced by Matt Damon), with mischief in his eye, declares he will name the new planet “Bob.” Ooh, such impish badinage, such youthful irreverence, such dreck! Would that this were in fact a reference to the nerdy, satiric, techno-culty Church of the Sub-Genius, whose traveling salesman/god is named Bob (“Don’t let the cosmic dogs get you down, get right with Bob today!” being my personal favorite of their slogans). Alas, this is manifestly not so, even if this underground reference is an appeal to the cross-over audience the film is so clearly courting. Planet Bob is Planet Bob merely to demonstrate the playful exuberance of our young hero and heroine (Akima, voiced by Drew Barrymore), and a gimmick to hang on the end of the story. The stylized “computer-font” captioning that tells us where we are as each scene changes informs us right before the final fade to black, that we have finally arrived at “New Earth” and parenthetically at (Planet Bob). Hee-hee.
Titan A.E. tries desperately to appeal to an “older” audience (and by this I mean a high school and 20-something audience), and fails miserably. And so our hero Cale sports the obligatory gnarly tattoo on his upper arm, and his girlfriend/fellow heroine Akima a funky, chunky asymmetrical hair-do with bright purple bangs. The film offers sophomoric allusions to anal probes and singles bars, wry sarcasm as communication, and dialogue that might be supposed to pass as witty and fast-paced. Not to mention its bitchin’ soundtrack featuring Lit, Powerman 5000, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Jamiroquai, and Luscious Jackson. Additionally, the cast has been culled from the current A-list of youth audience coolness, so that in addition to Matt and Drew, we have Janeane Garofalo (as Stith), and John Leguizamo (as Gune), plus older-but-still- cool actors Bill Pullman (as Korso) and Nathan Lane (as Preed). And Joss Whedon, of television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, is credited with screenwriting, but even his magic touch can’t salvage the lame dialogue and plot of Titan A.E.
All of these attempts at hipness are a transparent bid to garner a larger audience share than might presumably go to an animated summertime feature; i.e., “Let’s try to get the younger kids and the older kids, think of all that summer money!” Unfortunately, the film is much worse than it need be because of such obvious marketing strategies. All the gimmicks and innuendo undoubtedly will leave the kiddies confused and the young adults/grown-ups bothered. I for one would have enjoyed it far more if the movie had stuck to the bare requirements of its predictable plot, and not tried so hard to be so very.
At the same time, Titan A.E. also disappoints because of its unoriginality. Clearly the writers have read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and seen the original Star Wars trilogy innumerable times. (Little did Joseph Campbell know when he wrote his seminal study of mythology and hero cycles that he would be providing an easy blueprint for so many formulaic, unimaginative sci-fi movies.) And so, Cale loses his parents and home, must suffer and struggle to eke out a living, receives his quest/challenge and a talisman with secret powers, faces his enemies in the underworld, emerges victorious, and saves the world (or in this case finds a new one). And, of course, he undergoes the usual plot twists, betrayals, and romances.
Unsurprisingly, the movie’s central agon concerns Cale’s loss of his family and messy father-son relations. After the destruction of Earth, Sam Tucker takes off in his Titan project space ship, promising his son Cale to return shortly, and leaving him in the care of the weird amphibian alien soldier Tek (voiced by Tone Loc; and for Tek, if only his name and generic cosmic power struggles, cf. the bad sci-fi novels of William Shatner). Of course, dad doesn’t return and little Cale grows up alone and resentful. What follows is the father’s eventual redemption via the son’s forgiveness (cf. the Skywalker family).
The movie seemingly tries to offset Cale’s wallowing in family drama with its plucky heroine Akima, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of a drifter colony a set of space station communities pieced together from old spaceships on which the remnants of humanity live. Initially Akima resents Cale’s self-indulgent anger at dad, a luxury she never had, growing up without any sort of family and with only her wits to rely on. And Cale begins to suspect, through his interactions with Akima, that perhaps there is more to humanity and their experiences than his narrow vision allows. Once Akima realizes what a cool, understanding, courageous and sexy guy Cale is, naturally, all her attitude vanishes, and Cale’s myopic world- (or, cosmos-) view reasserts itself.
When we finally visit one of the drifter colonies, then, it is not so Cale can come to some deeper understanding of humanity’s plight. Rather, it is so he can demonstrate his abilities and ingenuity in fixing up the jalopy he and Akima will need to reach the all-important Titan ship, and incidentally, to show what humanity can accomplish when we all work together. The ship is populated, you see, by selfless, caring indigent humans who gladly help Cale on his journey; such is the nobility of poverty. Annoyingly, to illustrate this hardy and triumphant human spirit, the film offers its only black characters: a little boy and his older, teenage sister teach Cale, in one brief scene, about perseverance and hope. What is specious about this representation is it ties blackness to destitution. Of course these black children would know how to adapt and resign themselves to their lot in life (haven’t they always?), and only the tow-headed white boy Cale is outraged by the injustice of the situation. Apparently, even in an interstellar environment where all human beings are “losers,” racial hierarchies still apply, and some humans are more “losers” than others.
But wait, aren’t almost all sci-fi films so formulaic? And isn’t this a special effects-driven movie, which makes its plot be secondary anyway? Well, okay, maybe. Usually I am more than willing to let a generally lame plot off the hook if the special effects are good (the most recent example being M:I-2), and the animation in Titan A.E. is exceptional. As well, the CG environments and chase and fight scenes are, admittedly, pretty impressive, and the sound effects if you’re in the right theater rumble deep in your chest. The villains are a particular bit of computer artistry. Rather stupidly named The Dredge (Cale is “protecting the earth from the worst scum of the universe”? cf. Men in Black and cue Will Smith’s theme song here), they are all luminescent, and crystalline, and liquidy, and oozy and cool. But we never see enough of The Dredge collective, and, because there is no central villain, what we do see remains all digital wizardry and surface appeal.
But apparently, the technology that makes these villains look so good doesn’t help in sussing out human characters, doesn’t give them facial expressions and believable figures, etc. Or rather, I assume this must be the case: otherwise, why use old-fashioned, 2D animation for the major characters, who are left looking (pardon the pun) somewhat flat compared to the alien bad guys? Even the generally excellent animation and special visual and sound effects, however, can’t save the film from its sorry script and bald-faced promotional gimmickry. From back here on Planet Todd, Titan A.E. looks pretty lame indeed.