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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Titan: Turning the Tables on Humans in the Cosmos

A common scenario in both science fiction and projections of what future science will do to help humans move out into the cosmos is terraforming: we use our technology to make an alien world more habitable, more comfortable, to humankind.  This could include the moderating the temperature, increasing the oxygen, adjusting the gravity, that sort of thing.

Much less frequent is modifying the human being to make us more comfortable on an alien world.  "The Enchanted Village" by A. E. Von Vogt from the early 1950s, which I read as a kid, is a great example, and has always stayed with me. An astronaut lands and come close to dying on Mars.  The environment just doesn't work for him.  As he reaches the end of his rope, he suddenly feels better.  Mars has somehow changed him into an intelligent organism that can flourish on its surface.

The Titan, which just started streaming on Netflix at the end of March, is a similar kind of a story, with the big difference that humans here on Earth are deliberately trying to genetically modify a select group so that they can live in the icy confines of Titan - Saturn's largest room - in comfort.  The result is a strong narrative, incorporating elements of horror as well as military science fiction.

One weakness is a change of character in Prof. Collingwood - well played by Tom Wilkinson, who plays everything well - which doesn't seem completely motivated. (This is a part of larger problem in movie-making, in which professors are often poorly conceived.)  The science is also a little fuzzy - or, at least, specifically what is being done to Lt. Rick Janssen (played by Sam Worthington, last seen by me in Manhunt: Unabomber, where he also did a good job), and how it all fits or doesn't fit together to make Titan habitable for him.

But the story (by Arash Amel, screenplay by Max Hurwitz - writer for Unabomber and Hell on Wheels - and directed by Lennart Ruff) still works, and Taylor Schilling does a fine job as a doctor who is also Rick's wife.  So, all in all, I'd recommend this.  At its best, the movie explores the question of how much of our humanity we're literally willing to sacrifice to go out and live in the stars.  And the timing is great, since this Monday I'll be convening a one-day conference (free admission) at Fordham University on the intersection of space travel and religion, Touching the Face of the Cosmos, with a Keynote by Brother Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory.  We'll no doubt be exploring some similar issues.


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