Titan A.E. begins and ends with dramatic special-effects sequences that rouse some genuine emotions, but in between there are many moments where the plot chugs along the formula lines with obvious story manipulations. Rather than reinventing mainstream sci-fi conventions, Titan A.E. seems content to replay them in an animated cinema venue, which America still hasn't embraced. The result is a fairly entertaining comic book that's adequate but could've been much more daring and memorable.
Will this be the film that convinces American moviegoers that animated features aren't just family films? ("Anime" is hugely popular in Japanese movie theaters; in America it has a cult status on video.) I'm inclined to say no, because Titan A.E. is, in essence, still a family film. It's edgier and darker than Disney's animated features, and it looks to find its niche in sci-fi genre fans, but the story is pitched at a level for kids. The characters and story themes contain some palatable ideas, but they are conveyed in broad, simplistic strokes.
The year is 3028. In a powerful opening sequence, Earth is destroyed by a race of evil aliens called the Drej, who fear humanity and see its extermination as a self-serving proactive safety precaution. We see Earth's destruction through the eyes of a young boy named Cale, who is separated from his father, a man of great importance. Cale's father must escape to finish his work on the mysterious Titan project, which may have great importance to the fate of humanity.
This opening sequence captures some reel feeling. In less than 10 minutes of screen time we watch a young boy orphaned while the human race is brought to its knees, becoming scattered bands of refugees. Earth's destruction is a harrowing image, and there are some well-conceived touches like the moon being hit by shockwaves and crumbling into large dead masses.
Fifteen years later, Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) works in slicing up scrap metal. He lives the life of what now seems typical of humans—scraping by on peanuts, a member of a species that no longer garners much respect in the galaxy. One day, Cale is visited by a human named Korso (Bill Pullman). Korso believes Cale may hold great importance for humanity, and he's right: Cale learns that he holds in the palm of his hand (literally) a genetically coded map that points to the hidden Titan vessel. Korso enlists Cale (who resists the notion) as a crew member on his ship. The mission: Track down the Titan before the Drej can.
The central character struggle in the film is Korso's attempts to help Cale overcome his Han Solo-like "me first" cynicism. Cale has always felt his father abandoned him (it's of course more complicated than that), and his attitude is one of a skeptic who doesn't trust people. For Cale, nothing in the world is permanent, so you have to take advantage of the opportunities put in front of you—so long as they're self-serving.
Maybe the ship's attractive pilot, Akima (Drew Barrymore), can help Cale see otherwise. She also grew up as a refugee, but she hopes that finding humanity a new place to call home might be the way through which mankind can thrive again. The Titan, it is said, may provide just that.
The story owes plenty to Star Wars. The sense of wandering refugees reminds us of Luke Skywalker and the rebellion, while the Drej remind us of the Empire (though the Drej are much more cardboard in their single-minded motivation to destroy). They even have a planet-destroyer that is roughly equivalent to the Death Star. And at one point, Cale and Akima have just repaired a junk heap of a spaceship and try to start it for the first time; I had to chuckle when it stalled and Akima said, "Should I get out and push?"
Rounding out Korso's crew are some friendly, somewhat colorful non-human characters: Preed (Nathan Lane), the first officer; Gune (John Leguizamo), a strange, quirky genius; and Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a temperamental weapons expert.
Although most of the story isn't exactly brand new, the filmmakers manage to do a good job of delivering the material in an entertaining fashion. But what sabotages Titan A.E. is the way the plot doesn't play fair with some of its key characters. Without giving too much away, I'll mention that halfway through the movie there's a revealed motivation that doesn't track with the way a certain character is fundamentally established earlier in the film. Subsequently, this character's personality changes in ways so extreme that it qualifies as a betrayal of the audience. It's as if the screenwriters suddenly flipped a switch, and it really snapped me out of the movie. It's frustrating to invest in characters only to have the plot arbitrarily knock them around like pinballs.
Comic books are known for their simplistic, often exaggerated emotions and dialog, but I don't think animation can't be subtle. Titan A.E., alas, doesn't take enough subtle routes. It embraces lightning-paced comic-book-land—which is fine—but it could've benefited from a little more depth. The Drej are completely faceless, two-dimensional bad guys, most of whose dialog boils down to "Destroy the humans!" or other such lines of Ultimate Evil.
Where Titan A.E. works best is in its imaginative visuals and sometimes thrilling action scenes. The movie alternates traditional 2D animation (used for most scenes with characters and virtual "sets") with 3D computer effects (used for the shots of the ships and objects in space). The best eye-candy sequence comes when Cale's ship is being hunted through a nebular expanse filled with huge ice crystals that send reflections in every direction imaginable, giving Cale a tactical advantage. The sequence is as beautiful as it is complex, with constant motion in the full three dimensions.
Also imaginatively depicted are the physical characteristics of the Drej, whose ships seem translucent and elastic, and whose force fields have a fluidic, electric quality that registers as an original concept of sci-fi technology.
To experience some of these sights, and also in learning what the Titan project truly represents, I'm tempted to recommend Titan A.E. But as a story with (ironically) overly cartoonish characters who are too frequently jerked around by the plot, I'm mildly disappointed. Maybe a comic book should only be required to meet certain criteria, and depth isn't one of them. But why straightjacket animated features that way? Titan A.E. is a reasonable diversion, but given what it is at its outset, it deserves to be more.