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Aniara: an angst-fuelled journey through the void

Elizabeth Gibney explores a remarkable Swedish science-fiction film featuring a spaceship fleeing a burning Earth.

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A still from the Swedish film 'Aniara' showing lead actress Emelie Jonsson.

Emelie Jonsson plays Aniara protagonist the Mimarobe.Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Aniara Directors: Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018)

It’s a premise that is all too easy to imagine: in the not-too-distant future, humans must flee a scorched, uninhabitable Earth. Evacuees, many scarred by the flames of some unnamed Armageddon, set out for Mars on a space ferry.

So far, so sci-fi. But Aniara, the Swedish film pivoting on this catastrophe, is not about skintight spacesuits and high-tech derring-do in the void. It is drenched in existential angst, realism and trippy soundtracks — an art film with hints of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre. Co-directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the film is based on a 1956 epic poem of the same name by Nobel-prizewinning Swedish writer Harry Martinson. Like that work, it charts a devastating course for the eponymous ship’s passengers, and becomes an exploration of human adaptability, endurance and despair.

The protagonist, called the Mimarobe or MR (played by Emelie Jonsson), oversees the ship’s sentient computer, Mima. Invented by the first Mars colonists, Mima taps human memories to plunge visitors into a dream-like simulation of paradise: Earth as it was. The ‘Mima Hall’ offers respite from burning hell on the users’ home planet, and from the emptiness of the vacuum beyond the ship’s walls.

In our first sight of MR, she stares out of the grimy window of a space elevator ascending to Aniara, for what seems like a routine flight. Fellow passengers seem unfazed at bidding the remnants of Earth goodbye: soon, they’re enjoying the perks of their costly evacuation, one of many under way to remove people to Mars. The ship — a kind of shopping mall in space, laden with spas, bars and amusement arcades — is ultimately depressing, as children cry and bored adults walk around like zombies under neon lights. Yet MR’s new cabin-mate, known only as the Astronomer (Anneli Martini), notes that they are the lucky ones.

Soon, it all starts to go wrong. After swerving to avoid space junk, a freak accident occurs: Aniara is hit by a tiny screw that sets its nuclear power source on fire. The burning fuel rods must be ejected, leaving the ship with no power to allow the pilots to steer. Aniara, and the passengers, must continue on a trajectory into the blackness.

A still from the Swedish film 'Aniara' showing a group of people lying in a small room under a sun panel set in the ceiling

Spaceship passengers escape to a dream-like simulation of Earth in Aniara.Credit: Magnolia Pictures

The film thereafter charts the emotional journey of the passengers as they endure stages similar to those of grief. Days turn into weeks, weeks into years, with the Mima Hall the sole way of staving off the barely tolerable bleakness. But lives are lived on the ferry. MR, for instance, is drawn to Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), one of the ship’s pilots. She and MR are wonderful, fully developed characters: MR competent and resilient, Isagel pervaded by growing gloom. The closest thing to a villain, the supremely arrogant captain Chefone (Arvin Kanania), is delightful, almost comically macho in his conviction that every problem can be solved by hitting the gym harder. Cults develop, sexual freedom reigns and chaos descends.

Aniara is short on space science. Humans have mastered space elevators, and can propel themselves the hundreds of millions of kilometres to Mars in just three weeks, thanks to the “fifth tensor theory” that allows them to “outsmart gravity”. They have developed computers that read people’s memories. But Kågerman and Lilja dwell little on the underpinnings of these advances. Nor is anything said about the lack of rescue ships, or how the on-board algae farms are capable of providing food indefinitely, if not palatably.

The film is no poorer for that. The ship and its journey are a stage for a subtle psychological exploration of human behaviour — our capacity for destruction and cruelty, as well as optimism against all odds. The camera’s lingering shots encourage us to see the — mostly female — characters in raw, un-airbrushed beauty, and a documentary-like approach lends a terrifying credibility to the narrative. Ultimately, however, this is a philosophical film: a soul-searching examination of our insignificance at the cosmic scale.

Aniara sticks closely to Martinson’s poem, which was inspired by the horrors of hydrogen-bomb tests during the cold war. A sense of doom is never far away. But the film’s macabre finale actually left me profoundly relieved, even elated, as if waking up from a nightmare. At heart, Aniara is a reminder that we live on a remarkable planet. Even as fires burn from the Arctic to the Amazon, there is still time to stave off tragedy — for now.

Aniara is released in the United Kingdom and on streaming from 30 August.

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