Based on the poem by Harry Martinson
Directed by Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja
Produced by Meta Film Stockholm, Meta Film, and Viaplay
Released September 7, 2018
US release date May 17, 2019
With every advantage at its disposal, Hollywood ought to be producing more memorable, visionary science fiction films. Unfortunately, the U.S. film industry is so often focused on blockbuster spectacle that sometimes one has to venture farther afield to find something interesting and different. The obscure Swedish film Aniara (2018) may be a perfect case in point, a flawed but grimly compelling film that brings impressive visual style to its thoughtful tale of existential SF. Aniara took a peculiar route to the big screen; it’s based on a Harry Martinson poem from way back in 1956, and over the years it has inspired—get this—an opera and a prog-metal album! But as it turns out, 2019 may be the perfect time to reimagine this tragic science fiction poem as a full-length feature, and writer-directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja do an uneven but commendable job of adapting it into a modern cautionary fable.
The opening credits roll over a chilling montage of extreme weather events, as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods pummel the Earth. (Indeed, what’s all the more chilling is that it appears to be legitimate, recent stock footage.) Then we get the film’s first real shot, pulling back to follow the ascent of a space elevator as it rises from the surface, the stormy atmosphere of a dying planet roiling below. The elevator is full of passengers headed for the massive spaceship Aniara. One of them, MR (Emelie Jonsson), is an employee who regularly works the circuit from Earth to Mars and back. She’s the “Mimarobe,” caretaker of a holodeck-like chamber called the “Mima,” wherein an AI system draws on human memories to project people into placid visions of “the Earth as it was.” The Mima is a therapeutic escape for those passengers overwhelmed by the claustrophobia and homesickness of space travel.
MR serves as our entry-point character during these best, early stretches of the film, as we catch up with both Aniara’s literal backdrop and its metaphorical strategy. The worldbuilding groundwork unfolds, refreshingly, through keen visual storytelling. With minimal dialogue and almost no exposition, the opening chapters paint a vivid picture. The survivors, many visibly scarred by the Earth’s ecological breakdown, are fleeing Earth to a new safe haven on Mars. But humanity’s old habits die hard; the high-speed ship carrying them is one step removed from a pleasure cruise or a shopping mall, a depiction that holds the key to the film’s shrewd commentary. Even in these most desperate of circumstances, it suggests, people are blithely shopping and indulging and distracting themselves, without much thought to the consequences of their actions. MR, who’s basically the ship’s therapist, is underworked; everything’s fine on Aniara, and most people don’t bother much with self-care.
Sure enough, though, something quickly goes wrong. During an emergency maneuver to avoid space debris, the massive ship’s fuel systems are irreparably damaged, forcing them off course at such incredible speed that, unable to steer, they will need to hope for a slingshot recovery around the next celestial body they pass to send them home. Captain Chefone, played with outstanding subtlety by Arvin Kananian, reveals that rather than a three-week voyage, it may be two years before they can even correct course, let alone reach their destination. This disruptive news sets some travelers into panic mode, and increases MR’s therapeutic workload in the Mima. But eventually, a complacent business-as-usual resumes on the ship. Nothing for it but to wait and hope.
The captain and his entire crew, however, are lying. MR learns this from her misanthropic, nihilistic roommate, the Astronomer (Anneli Martini). The Astronomer has done the calculations, and they’re nowhere near two years away from a suitable celestial body. When MR confronts Chefone about it, he forces her to keep it under wraps to avoid a panic. “We’ve built our own little planet,” he says, unlocking the clever metaphor at Aniara’s core.
The film’s first half is an unnerving slow-build, with the feel of documentary footage as it depicts the passengers’ simple, pleasant lives on the ship. But in light of the set-up, catastrophe looms in every frame; indeed, for a while it looks like the film might escalate into an Irwin Allen disaster scenario. Instead, it becomes something more subtle: a slow apocalypse. Something’s deeply wrong on Aniara, but what’s more unsettling is how quickly everyone adapts to it—and how little they change their behaviors, despite an obvious need to do so. Aniara is an analog Earth, and like Earth, it shot past a point of no return while everyone went casually about their business. Meanwhile, the powers-that-be downplay the danger to keep an unsustainable system in place, even as the “planet” soars headlong into oblivion. “It’s so hard to tell when you’re involved,” the Astronomer tells MR at one point. “You usually need to view it from a distance.” She’s talking about the disintegration of her marriage, but she may well be discussing humanity’s in-the-moment inability to recognize long-term consequences.
The film’s build-up may be masterful, but once the cautionary metaphor develops, the film doesn’t seem to have much of a destination in mind. Of course, that may well be the point: after all, the film is sourced from Nordic existentialist SF poetry! But that does make it structurally unsatisfying. For a narrative through line, one can latch onto MR, whose daily struggles are brought sympathetically to life by Jonsson. Her story involves searching for romantic fulfillment in a slow-building relationship with beautiful, icy pilot Isabel (Bianca Cruzeiro). More thematically important, though, is MR’s commitment to the Mima and, later, to creating massive projection images outside the ship to distract the passengers from the terrors of the void beyond. MR’s work is the art of Aniara’s world, the beauty and wonder that makes the daunting journey of life worth living. Indeed, in the period when MR’s work is not available, the ship devolves into hedonistic orgies, religious zealotry, and—in one all-too-relevant sequence—a descent into rigid authoritarianism. These latter stages of the film actually may be truer to the poem’s themes than the first act is, but they’re less successful cinematically.
Aside from the structural issues, there are other reasons Aniara isn’t likely to win everyone over. The pacing is quite Scandinavian, patient and creeping, which is likely to polarize. And the atmosphere of looming disaster, of melancholy and despair and existential dread, will surely be a turn-off for the wrong viewer. But even if one dislikes the experience of the film, it’s hard to deny that it achieves an impressive and specific effect. For some—to be honest, for me—existentialism can be an important coping mechanism and source of comfort. Aniara may be a troubling and tragic vision, but there’s also a winning tenacity to its depiction of the human struggle, and occasionally there’s breathtaking beauty in its dark imagery. Whatever its flaws, it remains a thought-provoking work of science fiction that deserves more eyes on it.
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