The low budget, but highly ambitious and blackly comedic Swedish sci-fi thriller Aniara is one of the most original and literate genre experiments in quite some time. Adapted from a 1956 epic poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, Aniara is the debut feature from writer-directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, but outside of some storytelling gaps here and there, the film feels like the work of seasoned, perceptive professionals. Playing a lot like what might’ve happened if a satirist like Kågerman and Lilja’s fellow countryman Ruben Östlund had been allowed to improve upon a story that’s eerily similar to the abysmal Hollywood blockbuster Passengers, Aniara is a curious and transfixing mixture of fatalism and optimism that’s highly critical of both extremities.
Sometime in a non-specific future where the Earth has been ravaged and damaged beyond repair, mankind has begun ferrying humans to new homes on Mars. One such vessel, named Aniara (which Martinson derived from an ancient Greek word for “sad” or “despairing”), is a luxury transport, with amenities akin to combining a vacation resort, airport, and shopping mall into a single space. It’s a lengthy journey, but travellers aboard Aniara are told that they’ll only be aboard the ship for 23 days before docking with another craft for the next portion of the trip. Only days into the trip, however, Aniara gets caught in a debris field, forcing it to go off course and jettison all of its fuel in the process. The ship’s captain (Arvin Kananian) says that, theoretically, Aniara can get back on track by using the gravity of the next planet they come across to slingshot them back towards home, but notes that it could be a maximum of two years before they come across any other celestial bodies big enough to make a difference. To put it mildly, the captain’s maximum estimates were far off, and years drag on for the space drifting residents of Aniara.
Aniara is a film about an ark without much of an arc. Kågerman and Lilja are more content in observing breakdowns in human interaction, lies people tell themselves to get through rough patches, and the failings of consumer culture. If there’s any sort of primary protagonist here, it’s MR (Emelie Jonsson), a crew member tasked with operating and maintaining MIMA, a virtual reality supercomputer that can tap into a passenger’s memory and offer them personally curated visions and reminders of Earth from happier times. When things are going great in the early days of the voyage, MR almost can’t pay anyone to try the MIMA experience, but when everything turns dire and anxiety and psychosis begin to take root, visitors flock to it with an almost religious devotion.
A sizable portion of the story is told through MR’s perspective, but there’s a distinct lack of character throughout Aniara. The only other characters that don’t blend into the ship’s masses are the captain (who grows increasingly arrogant the longer they’re stranded), an antisocial astronomer (Anneli Martini) who already hates people enough as it is, and MR’s eventual companion and lover, Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro). They’re largely used as tools to either provide exposition or additional psychological and philosophical layers to Kågerman and Lilja’s story. It’s a good thing that Aniara provides plenty of tantalizing food for thought, because trying to make any emotional connection to these people and their plight is often an uphill battle.
But that’s entirely the point of Aniara and it’s deceptively cheeky construction. It’s not so much about individuals or the nagging scientific questions many viewers will likely have about the ship’s highly implausible trip through the cosmos, but rather about the problematic coping skills human beings tend to develop during a tragedy. There’s an overwhelming sadness that resonates throughout Kågerman and Lilja’s material, but there’s also a sick sense of humour that’s being used as a call to greater contemplation. In unexpected ways, Aniara functions brilliantly as a comedy, full of surreal touches and observational gags. Over the years cults start forming, awkward orgies start happening, people begin brewing their own liquor, the ship’s previously chipper bird mascot stops giving much of a shit, and they even manage to start a new dance craze. These are moments that are designed – by both the filmmakers and the passengers – to make people laugh and keep them from crying and despairing. It’s all very deadpan and droll, but Aniara’s bleak outlook on life and death comes with a healthy dose of levity to cut through the tension.
The design of the ship and the vastness of the void engulfing it is impressive. It can’t be easy creating a floating, luxurious monument to capitalism on a modest budget, but Kågerman and Lilja have accomplished such a feat. Aniara, the ship, feels positively cavernous at times. One can round the corner from a retail area of the ship and find themselves in an unexceptional looking condo building that’s steps away. The ship is a purposefully sleek, bland, and safe looking reminder of “the finer things in life;” a culture based on excess that’s living inside a museum of sorts. It’s a believable setting, emerging as an aspect of the film that’s more intellectually stimulating than most of the characters. But as a way to convey the story’s headier themes and big picture ideas, Kågerman and Lilja have created the perfect terrarium for their experiment.
Aniara does begin to strain credibility as it goes along, and for a movie that’s more about carefully measured observations than specific story beats, it runs a bit longer than it should. Thankfully, Aniara never manages to overstay its welcome, knowing exactly when to speed things up and slow them down. It all builds to a final scene that will make viewers either laugh, cry, or groan depending on how the film impacted them, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that all three responses seem perfectly valid. In the world of Aniara, there are no bad answers, just bad situations.
Aniara opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, May 17, 2019. It’s also available on iTunes and VOD the same day.
Check out the trailer for Aniara:
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