Things seem to go awfully wrong in space, don’t they? You could argue that without a problem, something going wrong, we don’t usually have much of a movie to watch. But still, how often do characters go “Yeah let’s do this space thing” and live happily ever after? Case in point, Aniara.
In a future where the Earth is ravaged by natural disasters and has become an otherwise-unpleasant place to live, humanity has taken to colonizing Mars. Passengers aboard the titular Aniara gear up for a three week journey to their new home. Only, when do things go well in space?
Director: Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja
Release Date: May 17, 2019
In a near-collision, the ship’s crew are forced to jettison their fuel supply, and, now set off-course by their dodge, are left to drift emptily through space, awaiting the gravity of a cosmic body to set them back on track.
Aniara comes out the gates low on exposition and strong on immersion in the moment. The aforementioned natural disasters are hinted via stock footage; we catch glimpses of passengers with disfigurements and scars, without so much as a glance from other travelers. The inciting incidents of near-collision happen what feels like immediately, without time to acclimate to our posh interplanetary cruise. The Mimarobe (Emelie Jonsson) is our unnamed protagonist, whose only back story is that she doesn’t have anyone “waiting” for her return. “What the hell’s a Mimarobe,” I hear you ask.
Aboard the Aniara, Mima is an AI designed as something of a psychiatrist for interplanetary travelers. The Mima Hall is where the Mimarobe works, ushering passengers into a striking hall where they’re invited to be at ease, Mima’s future tech able to swoon them into a trance in which they’re soothed by their memories of time on Earth. The technology isn’t explicitly detailed, with Mima serving a clear godlike role even early on in Aniara‘s doomed journey.
As time goes from hours, to weeks, to years (Aniara seems to almost take sadistic glee in its chapter cards, where subsequent breaks indicate increasingly drastic periods of time), the community’s reliance on Mima goes from a helpful relaxer to an addicting necessity. Aniara draws parallels between the dependence on Mima to the dependence on substances, perhaps, but really it shows how unprepared people are for extended periods surrounded by the void of space.
The story of perseverance through stranding can be told on an island or a spaceship, and has been told in films for years. The detail with which Aniara tracks a gradual descent into becoming de-civilized can come across as superficial at times, with fluctuations in just how kooky things are getting aboard the cruise coming off as inconsistent or erratic at times.
At the risk of spoiling Aniara‘s many ups and downs over the ship’s voyage, it’s worth turning to the look of the film. Whereas a lot of “low-budget” sci-fi strips its cosmic spectacle down to the bare minimum (Claire Denis’ recent High Life serves as a prime example), Aniara occasionally flaunts its special effects to great effect. Mima’s chambers (look at that, anthropomorphizing an artificial intelligence!) are visually-striking, and our glimpses outside of the ship relatively frequent. Aniara is no Interstellar or Blade Runner 2049 in its visuals, but it does a serviceable job. Noteworthy is the camerawork, which is strikingly handheld where I and others would perhaps expect the static, formal framing of cold, detached science-fiction.
The set design and general look of the ship recalls a sleek shopping mall, and actually gave me the impression of Cowboy Bebop in an odd way, with costumed mascots pointing children towards dated arcades, and dance clubs and bars set up to give passengers something to pass the time.
The Mimarobe eventually passes the time with Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), a pilot with whom she starts a relationship. Isagel’s cold detachment and the Mimarobe’s optimism butt heads occasionally, giving Aniara something of a human story amidst the cold blackness of space.
Perhaps it is the lack of a strong human element that propels Aniara. The passengers’ journey is chronicled for years, with the film running the risk of telling too much of its story, events hurling by faster than space debris. The Mima angle of the story, in which people strive for some meaning in the face of cosmic oblivion, is by far the most-compelling aspect of Aniara, yet what should be the focus seems to fizzle into a mere subplot, with maybe the second half of the film devoted to other pursuits. While Aniara is not a long film at 106 minutes, and the leaping in time jolts any lulls in pace, it does start to feel a little aimless and undramatic.
It’s tricky to tell whether, by time the credits are rolling, Aniara pokes at cosmic profundity or languishes in space shenanigans, but I found myself almost perpetually interested, at the very least. While it may stumble and could have used expansion and reduction in parts of its telling, Aniara‘s story is one of hope in the face of hopelessness, but sans the melodrama that it possibly needs to become compelling. In space, no one can hear you scream if you don’t scream at all.