Aniara: Swedes lost in space find plenty of emptiness to wrap their angst around

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-plus

Given that it doesn’t necessarily have to be about things going, “Pew pew!,” you’d think the Swedes would indulge more sci-fi. Space films have an existential experience track record, from Kubrick to Tarkovsky to Claire Denis’ recent High Life

The story of a cruise ship to Mars that takes a wrong turn by years and even decades, Aniara is essentially “Swedes in Space.” 

Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) receives healing vibes from the ship’s AI in Aniara.

Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) receives healing vibes from the ship’s AI in Aniara.

Things happen. People react phlegmatically to their hopelessness. As time goes on, many commit suicide in outbursts of long-suppressed angst.

First-time directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja bite off considerably more than they can depict by adapting Nobel-winning poet Harry Martinson’s 103 cantos from the ‘50s into a 105-minute movie. For a film that’s about decades of interstellar aimlessness, Aniara seems hopelessly rushed and superficial.

The movie is set against the backdrop of Earth in convulsion, with what looks like stock footage of wildfires, floods and tornadoes. I don’t know how far into the future we are, but in 2019, we call that Tuesday. (And it’s your first clue that the effects in this film are on the level of the ‘70s Canadian TV series (The Starlost).

The thousands of passengers have 21 restaurants to choose from, party rooms, discos, and a deck with an artificial intelligence that absorbs the memories of the passengers and delivers dreamlike, soothing experiences to them. (Said AI is represented by what looks like the flashing floor of a disco attached to a ceiling).

Then a clumsily rendered manoeuvre to avoid a cloud of space debris ends with the jettisoning of nuclear fuel and an inability to steer the Aniara. Bear in mind, this is a ship with provisions for a three-week trip to the passengers’ new home on Mars. Weeks, months and years go by, and though the passengers are reduced to eating algae, there’s still plenty of alcohol. (I’ve been on two-week cruises that have run short of booze). 

Seen mainly through the eyes of the unfailingly cheerful Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), Aniara is about what happens to people when the ship they’re on becomes their world forever. As mentioned, many can’t live with it. Even the AI is not built to absorb that many Swedish psyches for that long and gets horribly depressed. It’s actually an interesting turn of events, a thoughtful mechanical rumination of how much is too much when you’re programmed to empathize with people’s needs and psychological burdens.

But, hey, there are always orgies. Like stages of grief, the passengers go through denial, anger, bargaining and a period of unrestrained licentiousness (orgies, psychedelic drugs, etc.). The esthetic sense of the movie gives us orgies that resemble nothing so much as naked performance art installations.

Other things happen episodically, with, as I say, decades in which to happen. After unsatisfying sex with the men on board, Mimaroben finds a partner in one of the crew, Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro). Eventually they have a baby. Surviving crew members form a religious cult. The captain (Arvin Kananian), who fancies himself the ruler of a self-sustained planet, becomes despotic and even murderous. 

All of this happens at an emotional level set at 5 out of 10, which lowers as the movie moves onward. When the initial disaster happens, the captain raises an eyebrow. The passengers are slightly jarred. This is a space adventure I can confidently recommend to people with heart conditions.

Aniara. Directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja. Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro and Arvin Kananian. Opens Friday, May 17 at the TiFF Bell Lightbox.