Being a fan of collaborators Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s previous short films The Swedish Supporter (Supportern, 2011) and The Unliving (Återfödelsen, 2010), I was excited to see how they would apply their signature blend of genre and realism, this time in space! Based on the epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, written in 1956, Aniara is the titular name of a ship set for a routine commute to Mars. What begins as a comfortable three-week cruise, aboard a vessel that looks like a shipping container on the outside and an amusement park on the inside, quickly turns into a traveller’s worst nightmare when the ship hits some space debris and veers off course. The film charts the ship’s delay in days, weeks, months and finally over many years as the cruise ship becomes a coffin.
Mr (Emelie Jonsson) is our stoic guide, and in her role as Mimarobe she provides onboard R&R (rest & relaxation) to passengers seeking idyll thanks to MIMA, a sentient holodeck that feeds off users’ memories to provide a simulacrum of what the Earth once was – all forests, natural springs and wild raspberries. Before the ship veers off course, MIMA is a little-used, glorified nap room, but post-accident it becomes an over-crowded escape room. Overhead shots of inert bodies, face down on donut pillows, perfectly evoke Radiohead’s music video for “Just”; they’re lying on the ground just as they’re lying to themselves. As much as the passengers try to distract themselves with MIMA, they can’t cover up their new reality with a hologram, just like they can’t amuse themselves to death by bowling, shopping, drinking or dancing, hard as they may try.
Aniara is eerie and wholly original in its choice to depict the alarm of being lost in space as a workplace drama rather than another alien horror. By following the ship’s staff rather than its passengers, the film captures the aimless drift of following procedures and bureaucracy, the frustration of trying to innovate in a literal vacuum, and the shock of discrimination in a workplace with no oversight. Never being off-duty or able to leave work is enough of a nightmare to drive any dystopia, but add to that the depressing prospect of floating through space without rescue, change or novelty and you have an unfathomable worst case scenario. How do humans deal with enclosed stasis with nothing to look forward to? How do workers handle never being off the clock? It turns out that the most frightening monsters in space are those lurking within each and every one of us.
While brilliantly depicting a space disaster without contingency plan, Aniara focuses on the mundane, everyday responsibilities of its employees, and presents the unthinkable as business-as-usual. In this way, aimlessness is shown as both a state of mind and matter. As an existential think piece, Aniara is powerful stuff. As a film, it suffers from having to cover too much time and space, using chapters to chop up events in increasingly episodic segments, which results in a story that’s more interested in concept than character. At times the film grasps for action, introducing sex cults, suicides and sulphate threats that feel more like plot devices than organic social issues, and slips into caricature. Thin character motivation and tonal issues towards the end of the film make for some flat, accidentally funny scenes involving group sex and later, the Captain’s misogynist authority. While the filmmakers’ efforts to depict anarchy as something creative, and attempts to show characters who don’t in fact change over the course of the film due to the stagnant setting are appreciated, these elements combined with a rush for the finish line make for a seat-shifting final act.
Despite not being emotionally invested in the characters by the end, I was affected by the film’s premise, themes and ideas. As an experience, watching Aniara is an exercise in confinement, it offers no room to breathe and no room to grieve, wherein the viewer is forced to face despair and hope again and again, and to consider the bleakness of being a space pioneer not its typical heroism. After watching this film, I needed release – as if the cinema itself was a cramped ship I’d stayed aboard too long, and the screen a MIMA hologram reflecting not Nature, but instead human nature and the depressing depths to which our self-destruction can reach.