Aniara (Cert 18)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 106 mins approx.
Mankind is doing a great job in driving the earth towards Armageddon if climate change protestors are to be believed, with the latest group to express their concerns going by the subtle name of Extinction Rebellion. But if the earth does become uninhabitable, where else can we go?
The titular Aniara is a luxury space cruiser that can transport humans en masse from the rotting remains of earth to a new colony on Mars in just three weeks. Everything is copacetic until a week into the journey, the ship collides with space debris, knocking it off course and damaging the fuel reserves. The Captain (Arvin Kananian) reveals the ship will drift for two years before they can reach the nearest planet and use its gravity to turn around.
With the passengers distraught about being stuck on the Aniara for so long, they turn to the MIMA for comfort. MIMA is a machine that reads people’s memories of earth and plays them back in a virtue reality version, assisted by the Mimarobe (Emelie Jonsson). As she struggles to cope with this influx of customers, MIMA self-destructs after seeing so much suffering and destruction in the memories, the first major casualty of this prolonged space journey.
It seems there is a new movement in cinema, the eco-sci-fi genre, with entries thus far including China’s Wandering Earth and Last Sunrise, and Japan’s The Whispering Star. But while these films are in response to modern day issues, Aniara is based on a 1956 poem by Harry Martinson, proving a prescient work for the Swedish directing duo of Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja to update and make scarily topical.
However, the ecological aspect is less of a focus, preferring to look at the existentialist drama of humans adrift in space and their increasing inability to cope with an uncertain future. Our guide for this journey is Mimarobe, initially just another member of staff. She shares a room with the ship’s astronomer (Anneli Martini), who reveals the Captain told a white lie and there is no nearby planet, and if they should reach one, nobody will still be alive to appreciate it.
Under the Captain’s iron rule, where – unaware the Astronomer is onto him – his truth is the only truth, putting pressure on Mimarobe. She believes the passengers should be told but also understands the time will pass by quicker the less they know. Initially it works, and most treat this like a holiday, at least until MIMA commits computer suicide from being depressed by the morbid memories of the earth survivors.
As the journey continues, the weight of the deception crushes many a spirit, including the Captain. Taking his position a little too seriously, not quite a dictator but heading in that direction. Disobedient or free thinking staff are arrested, strict rules are in place for everyone, some passengers are put to work – hardly the new civilisation the people were hoping for but under these circumstances, they are really in no position to argue.
Mimarobe ends up in prison, blamed for MIMA’s demise, where she begins a relationship with taciturn pilot Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro). Both are returned to work when after four years, mass suicides resulting in a drop in staff; Isagel resumes her old post, Mimarobe is forced to teach child passengers, hoping one might be smart enough to come up with a solution to their plight. They end up joining a cult devoted to MIMA and as a result of a ritual orgy, Isagel falls pregnant.
It’s fascinating to see this new world, which begin essentially from scratch, evolve from a three week commute to a fully functioning mini-society, albeit one born from pressure than necessity. The intrigue is the tacit implication of whether this is how it would have been like on Mars; at one point when a passenger flips out, he is quietly told Mars isn’t all it is cracked up to be and staying on the Aniara is the better option.
Sadly absent from this is a sense of hope, a tangible light at the end of the tunnel which otherwise is a dim flicker to those still naïve enough to believe in the captain. The script goes a long way to avoid making the characters maudlin and hopeless, lest the audience finds themselves feeling the same way, but the pervasive air of austerity and melancholy is too palpable to ignore.
Ordinarily in this scenario, prolix passages of intellectual and philosophical debate would dominate the screen time to ensure the messages are effectively put across, but Lilja and Kågerman are of the “show don’t tell” school of filmmaking. Admittedly, the pace slackens a bit in the second act making the film feel longer than it is, but the unique world created and freefalling decline of humanity is potent enough to hold our interest.
Visually the modest budget is well disguised and the SFX effects more than pass muster, whilst the mood and atmosphere recalls the quieter moments of 2001, with the glossier bustle and energy of Wandering Earth. Philosophically, this reads like a heartfelt lament for what earth has, and will, become, pointing fingers at the folly of humanity but not in blame, but more by way of saying “we can do better”, thus avoiding a didactic narrative.
Quite remarkably, despite a cast of thousands and a few obvious prominent figures, it is hard to come away from this film only remembering Emelie Jonsson’s performance. This is not a slight on the other actors, more high praise for her resolve and versatility in taking Mimarobe on such a compelling and fraught journey with such poise, nuance, and aplomb.
Aniara is unabashedly arthouse sci-fi – slickly made, profound, intelligent, and thought provoking in presenting a future we can expect to see if we don’t sort out the present. This cautionary tale speaks to all of us, leaving its mark in the devastating final shot in which the irony could not be any more bitter.
Commentary with Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja and Arvin Kananian
No Set Sci-fi – The Making Of Aniara
Interviews with directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, production designer Maja-Stina Åsberg, sound designer Calle Wachtmeister and VFX supervisor Andreas Wicklund
Short Film – The Unliving (Återfödelsen)
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ****
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