Written and directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja
Starring Emelie Jonsson, Anneli Martini, Arvin Kananian, Jennie Silfverhjelm and Bianca Cruzeiro
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing images, and drug use
Running time: 1 hour and 46 minutes
by Hunter Bush
The old axiom "There's just no winning the human race" reoccurred to me frequently throughout my viewing of Aniara, the pessimistically meditative new Swedish sci-fi feature from writer / directors Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, based on the epic poem by Harry Martinson. Combining modest means with a truly grand scope, the filmmakers have managed to come away with a surprisingly multi-faceted work.
The story is as follows: with Earth becoming uninhabitable, swaths of the surviving population have boarded the truly massive space craft Aniara to travel to human colonies on Mars. When an accident causes the ship to deviate from its flight plan and jettison all fuel, they are left floating off into the uncharted void of deep space, at least until they pass the nearest celestial body and can use its gravity to slingshot them back on course. Almost right from the get-go, our lead character M.R. (Emelie Jonsson) is told by her astronomer roommate (Anneli Martini) that there is no way that is gonna happen. They are so impossibly far from the nearest planet that they will never survive to see it, let alone perform this dubiously feasible maneuver. So with any likely hope of rescue taken off the table, the most tangible thread in the film becomes the people and, aside from M.R., most of them aren't very nice. Watching it, I was frequently put in the position of considering how I would act in a similar situation.
Far from being just a morality play set in space, Aniara has a lot of very interesting science fiction concepts in play as well. The most prominent is MIMA, a computer program that reads subjects’ memories and plays back idyllic, pastoral scenes of the Earth that were a form of relaxation therapy via psychic travel. MIMA is semi-sentient. So as more and more passengers begin to use her services more frequently, the stress begins to take its toll and she begins giving cryptic, poetic warnings about her mental state. These include repeated uses of the phrase "how terror blasts in, how horror blasts out" and by this point, you know it's not good. But the concept and design is extremely cool.
If you read my latest column, MIMA is what I mistakenly misidentified as a room designed to give passengers doses of artificial sunlight, which I presumed would be to help fight off the depression that weeks without it can bring. Turns out I was, as they say, "close, but way off". In my defense, MIMA does resemble a large square panel of lava lamp vapor light show about 8 feet up, parallel to the floor. Somehow, tilting your head down allows you to enter the vision that's been constructed for you and even though there are frequently multiple people in the room at once, each vision is specified to the person viewing it. The visions can also be seen by the operators, called Mimarobes (which is what M.R. is; her nickname comes from her job title) using a small viewing screen. This is top notch sci-fi to me, as is the ship's means of space travel, which is described late in the film as "tensor theory". Though tensor theory is never clearly described, previously in human history, space flight was achieved by forcing a craft "out of gravitational curves" and later "escaping gravity fields by pulsing the ships". We're also shown the Aniara's crew manipulating gravity to slow a passing object in the hopes that it's a probe sent to find them. As a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, all of this appealed to me immensely, adding to the world without stealing too much focus.
As I briefly mentioned above, the human experience is the focus of Aniara, specifically as seen from M.R.'s perspective. When the newest passengers arrive (off of an honest-to-goodness space elevator!) M.R. is introduced to them alongside MIMA herself, as M.R. is initially the only Mimarobe on board. She's polite and agreeable, but within the hierarchy of the ship, she's not someone that holds much sway. Once the ship goes off course, and more people are using MIMA for self care, she eventually convinces the ship's captain (Arvin Kananian) to assign her some assistants. Being a Mimarobe seems to be a bit like being the designated driver or sober babysitter while everyone else is having a transcendental experience. So M.R. is now responsible for, not only the people using MIMA but also, making sure her new assistants aren't getting high on their own supply. Still, she never flaunts her increasing influence, except maybe to give that one lady pilot, Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro) whom she has a crush on a private MIMA session every now and then. She also doesn't seem to garner any special praise or thanks from the populace of the ship, but once MIMA stops functioning properly M.R. becomes the focus of all the blame. Undeterred, she works for years to develop a new technology that can offer some small measure of the relief MIMA once did, even after being chastised by the Captain. Though there aren't really "bad guys" in Aniara, the captain and one woman in particular, Libidel (Jennie Silfverhjelm) who started the rumor that M.R. has been sabotaging MIMA, function as the main antagonists.
The story in Aniara isn't told in days or weeks, but across years; decades. Longer. Libidel goes from being a mother, impatient to reach Mars for her son's next birthday, to a cult leader attempting to unite people in orgiastic ritual, and then ultimately to dust. That brings me to a third aspect of Aniara I appreciated: parable. Martinson, author of the poem, was apparently interested in exploring where science and science fiction met existentialism and filmmakers Kågerman & Lilja stay true to that ideal. What we briefly see of Earth in the film's opening moments is stock footage of natural disasters and, though alluded to several times (including passengers with severe burn scarring), we're never given definitive explanation of what has made it truly unlivable. Therefore, in my head at least, Earth becomes a nebulous "bad place" not unlike Hell, turning the Aniara's journey through space into an allegory for the struggle for enlightenment. If you're not particularly theist, you could view it as allegorical to social progress with Earth being any outmoded worldview and some uncertain destination (Mars / any other inhabitable planet) or event (unlikely rescue) being a hoped-for "better tomorrow".
It is at this point I should tell you that (according to the Wikipedia) the name "Aniara" comes from the ancient Greek for "sad, despairing". There is no happy ending. Whether this is indicative of a pessimism in the original poem or the result of the filmmakers' own viewpoints I don't know, but the downer ending in Aniara elevated the film from simply a story with allegorical overtones to a full on cautionary parable. If we, as a people, come apart in moments of great difficulty, we'll never reach anything truly better and will depend on technological stop-gap solutions and hedonistic distractions to make our lives merely endurable.
On a technical level, Aniara is extremely well-made though the seams do show from time to time. The ship exteriors (and accompanying space shots) look quite good, honestly better than I was expecting, but the sets for the interiors don't really give an impression of the scope of the ship. At times it almost feels like a shopping mall blasted into space rather than a world-ship, and that makes it harder to gauge how many people are aboard. Admittedly, a minor quibble and honestly not necessarily one that I noticed until I had to start writing about it, but still.
Stylistically the film is broken up into chapters designating how long into their journey they are, plus a subtitle (“Hour 1: Routine Voyage”, “Week 3: Without a Map”, etc) which more than once elicited a verbal reaction from me; a laugh or an "oh, shit" or in the case of the final chapter, a gasp.
I can't speak knowledgeably about the poem, but as a film Aniara reminded me of a lot of the sci-fi I grew up reading; Clarke and Heinlein and any number of short form writers whose names I've forgotten. They allowed their characters to be defined by actions rather than flowery language, saving their most evocative phrases for concepts both physical and metaphysical. There's a similar cool detachment to the filmmaking here that allows the characters to reveal themselves to you slowly. The Captain, for instance, seems to be trying a little too hard to seem authoritative, which came across to me in how he was often taking meetings while working out, tying his position to his physicality in a way that reads a tad insecure. Whether this slight indifference is a conscious choice or the result of a combination of space setting & language barrier (Aniara is in Swedish and subtitled), I'm not totally sure, but I liked it.
That's something I should say before ending this review: bleak as Aniara is, I really enjoyed it. It isn't all doom and gloom either, there's love and sex and cults and murder, all grounded by powerfully emotive performances. I also love not only the science fictional concepts themselves, but how lightly they were handled. There are no long expository scenes explaining exactly how things work, which makes them seem infinitely more believable (you wouldn't write a paragraph about how the coils in the toaster heat up, you'd just says bread went in and came out toasted), like they're relatively commonplace. Above all, I enjoyed the pessimistic tone the most, which rather than feeling oppressively bleak, combined with the story to feel oddly inspiring. It could’ve leaned a bit harder into the cult stuff though. I do so love a good cult.