By Jonah Goldberg, NRO editor--------------------JonahEmail@aol.com
f you've got kids and you're looking for a harmless movie they might like, go ahead and see Titan A.E. There are some cool explosions, a soundtrack a 6-year-old could groove on, and a pain-free plot. There's no nudity, and the bloodshed is strictly rated G. Sure, the planet Earth blows up (that's what A.E. stands for, "after Earth"), but unless your kids are particularly anxious that shouldn't bother them too much. In the meantime, you'll be far more bored than you would be in, say, Toy Story, Dinosaur, or Tarzan. In short, it's a moderate fizzle of a kids' cartoon.
Now, let me tell you about the review I would love to write. It would be one in which I would have to dispel the many criticisms of worrywarts who feel that so much violence and explicit sexuality has no place in a cartoon. It would be one in which I would be forced to defend the idea of an R-rated animated film. Alas, that review will not be forthcoming.
It's odd that while television has embraced the idea of adult (but not pornographic) cartoons, the film industry is still terrified of making a cartoon that isn't for kids. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Dilbert, King of the Hill, Futurama, etc., are all programs primarily aimed at grown-up human beings; the bulk of their content, i.e., dialog, is not dependent on a cartoon format. But not since American Pop or more precisely Heavy Metal has there been a good animated film aimed at a mature audience.
Originally released in 1981, Heavy Metal doesn't hold up that well these days despite its overhauled re-release in 1996. Nevertheless, the film stands out because it was willing to address drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. Based on the comic book of the same name, it fostered a sense of false hope that Hollywood would recognize that comic books lend themselves to animation better than to real-life depictions. For every live-action superhero movie that works on the big screen the first Batman, the second Superman movie – there are dozens that bomb, and for good reason.
There is such a vast storehouse of excellent science fiction and alternative fantasy out there that Hollywood could be churning out big sellers for decades to come at far less than the cost of a Batman Returns or the forthcoming X-Men movie. Just to head off critics, let me point out that animated films drenched in sex and violence would probably be less detrimental to young audiences, because even young people know that cartoons are not real.
In this, Titan A.E. misses a great opportunity. The film dies by half-measures, trying to appeal to grown-up sci-fi fans without being too offensive for kids. The main character might as well be a figure from today's current crop of yawn-inspiring Saturday-morning fare. There is far more bloodshed in 30-year-old reruns of Johnny Quest (back when cartoon guns shot real bullets) than there is in this tired sci-fi wannabe. The producers clearly wanted a gritty film but couldn't pull the trigger.
Just in case you care, the plot is familiar. Earthlings are on the verge of making the great leap forward in their evolution the ability to create new planets (think the Genesis Project in The Wrath of Khan). For some reason a race of beings called the Dredge conclude that humanity must be stopped from taking this step, so they blow up Earth. Fortunately, "Titan" the ship/technology capable of cooking planets is spirited away just in time. The wandering humans are left to fend for themselves. And the main character, Cale, voiced by Matt Damon, must save the universe.
The plot idea is certainly serviceable even if its execution is abysmal. But the idea that this was as the producers contended a mix between The Matrix and Star Wars may be the most ridiculous overstatement since, well, that live-action flop, Battlefield Earth.