Titan A.E. (2000) – Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman – Starring Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo, Tone Loc, Janeane Garofalo, Alex D. Linz, and Ron Perlman.
TITAN A.E. was a commercial flop when it was released in 2000 and through the writing of this reaction, it is the last film veteran animator Don Bluth has directed. After the film tanked (the movie cost $75 million and grossed just under $37 mil at the box office), Fox shut down their animation studios. It is fitting that some films bomb because they stink.
TITAN A.E. is not one of those movies.
I watched this movie a decade ago or so and enjoyed it and it was with some trepidation that I hit play on the Netflix streaming last night. TITAN is so unrecognized that I was happy to have the vaguely happy memory of what I thought was a decent sci-fi/action space movie; I worried that in watching it I’d see why it’s a film that’s largely ignored.
Turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about. TITAN A.E. is a really solid, really aggressively sci-fi action film that moves hard and fast from start to finish, and mixes hand-drawn animation with CGI to great effect. I like the look and feel of this movie, and even though its reality often feels more constructed than natural, it works to reinforce the coldness of humanity in the years A.E. (After Earth blowed up). Co-written by Ben Edlund (The Tick), Joss Whedon (Buffy), and John August (who’s collaborated with Tim Burton on several occasions), TITAN A.E. has plenty of geek cred and that knowledge is evident in the screenplay.
The Drej (which have an “inspired by Original Tron” vibe to them) have decided that the Earth needs to be destroyed because of the experimental Project Titan, erm, project. The lead scientist for this project is Sam Tucker (Ron Perlman), and when the Drej comes he sticks his son Cale (Alex D. Linz) with some associates and then goes and blasts off with the Titan ship just before the Earth is destroyed. The Drej had feared that humans were about to become the most dominant life form in the galaxy, but their successful demolition of the Earth causes humanity to become a scattered, insignificant force in the universe.
I love the look of this first opening action sequence. It’s colored in muted browns and olives and golds, which sets a serious tone to the film. This isn’t going to be a bright and sunshiny film, and when Cale’s dad sends him away and then the Earth blows up, you know this film will have real consequences to the action and violence it copiously displays.
Cale grows up with his friend Tek (Tone Loc) and starts sounding like Matt Damon. They work at a space salvage yard, and he’s grown up to be a selfish jerk, using his dad’s failure to return for him as his excuse for how he turned out. Into this mundane life comes Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman), who reveals to Cale that the ring his father gave him before abandoning him is actually a star map that leads the way to the Titan craft. Cale is less than popular with the aliens he works alongside, and their attack is the second big action piece.
For all of the screenwriting power, TITAN doesn’t really feel like an Edlund piece or a Whedon piece or an August piece, but this escape sequence and Cale’s following introduction to the crew of Korso’s ship, the Valkyrie, does have echoes of Wheden’s Firefly/Serenity. The action is crisp and inventive and Korso’s got that same Descendant of Han Solo vibe as Mal Reynolds, although he’s colored in a darker shade of morality.
The crew of the Valkyrie is full of different-looking aliens, enforcing the idea that the universe is full of all sorts of lifeforms: Preed (Nathan Lane), Gune (John Leguizamo), Akima (Drew Barrymore), and Stith (Janeane Garofalo). Nearly everyone in this film is voiced by someone quasi-famous, and the choices are both inspired and insipid. Nathan Lane’s turn as the traitorous Preed is really strong; cast against type, Lane gives Preed a sense of elitist thuggery that works really well. On the other end, however, is Drew Barrymore’s performance as Akima; her somewhat squeaky voice doesn’t match the strong individualism of Akima. It doesn’t stop there. Where Damon is strong as Cale, Pullman’s Korso feels like a guy playing tough and in control instead of being tough and in control. Leguizamo is fine as Gune, but Garafolo brings nothing to Stith.
With the crew now assembled, the Valkyrie goes off on a series of adventures as they follow the star map. The Drej stays hot on their tails and there’s several skirmishes. None of the action is all that unpredictable, but the filmmakers have done a really solid job meshing typical action with some really nice CGI backgrounds. TITAN A.E. takes its visual cues from movies like Alien and the original Star Wars – things look and feel used and functional – and then paints spectacular backgrounds for the action to play upon.
Korso and Preed end up being traitors to humanity, revealing themselves as agents of the Drej. Akima and Cale are on the other side; at first Cale was completely in the, “what’s in this for me?” camp but their shared experiences (and his fondness for Akima) have brought him around to putting humanity first. Cale and Akima find the Titan ship and everyone gets together for a big final fight. Korso is betrayed by Preed, but before Preed can get away, Korso breaks his neck. Korso now has a change of heart and sacrifices himself so Cale can save the day.
The whole movie just has a really nice sci-fi feel to it; while this isn’t a genre-breaking script, it does move fast and play relatively smart, and there are consequences to individual actions, all of which makes TITAN A.E. a joy to watch. An easy comparison to make is with Disney’s Treasure Planet, and I prefer the grittiness of TITAN A.E. to the visually superior, but narratively weaker Planet.
Nearly forgotten though it may be, TITAN A.E. is well worth a watch.