Each year brings an example or three of purported “thinking person’s science-fiction” films, a category that pretty much embraces anything not centered on monsters or lightsaber battles. These efforts are often more admirable in theory than result, but “Aniara” — the first film drawn from Nobel Prize-winning Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s 1956 cycle of 103 cantos — provides a narrative as satisfying as its conception is ambitious. This tale of a spaceship stuck wandering the cosmos after being forced off course is both impressive in its scope and intimate in its portrait of human nature under long-term duress.
Though inevitably destined to frustrate genre fans who think they want something different but still require conventional action thrills, Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s first feature should intrigue and reward those inclined toward adult drama who wouldn’t normally expect such tropes from a sci-fi movie.
There’s also the lure of topicality: Though its source material was originally written in response to Hiroshima and the Cold War, “Aniara” has renewed relevance, since the notion of humanity forced to flee an environmentally devastated Earth has become as scientifically plausible a future scenario as any. In any case, Magnolia’s limited Stateside rollout May 17 should hopefully stir some interest, and debate.
Under the writer-directors’ opening credits, we see news footage of various environmental disasters that are assumed to have rendered our home planet uninhabitable — or at least worth leaving for those who can afford to. Thus we first meet our heroine, Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), on a sort of shuttle carrying passengers to Aniara, the much larger vessel that will take them to new permanent colonies on Mars.
Mimaroben (or MR) is actually an employee of the spaceship, being the hostess-operator of a virtual-reality experience that taps visitors’ own memories to immerse them in visions of “Earth as it once was.” This “MIMA” is just one of many attractions, including restaurants, arcades, shops, et al., with which travelers can amuse themselves during the cruiseship-like voyage. But shortly after takeoff, there’s a violent impact. While little apparent damage is done, the Captain (Arvin Kananian) soon informs his passengers that to avoid colliding with space debris during the “incident,” the Aniara’s fuel had to be ejected. It now has no control over its course, meaning the expected three-week journey may now take up to two years, or until another celestial body comes close enough to enable gravitational realignment with the ship’s route.
Naturally this is worrying, though it turns out that with some modest sacrifices the vessel can manufacture sufficient oxygen, food, etc. for a very long haul. Yet MR’s bunkmate, a pessimistic older astronomer (Anneli Martini), informs her that even the Captain’s proffered scenario is wishful thinking: She knows there’s little chance Aniara will ever find means to right itself in the infinity of space. MR keeps this bleak news to herself, but the poison-tongued astronomer leaks the truth to others, causing waves of panic, depression, suicide and delusion.
Meanwhile, the appeal of MR’s MIMA grows ever more enticing to patrons who realize they may never see their planet — or any other — again. Trouble brews once the visions they experience grow steadily less tranquilizing, sometimes even nightmarish. Crisis arrives when MIMA, which seems to have a consciousness of “her” own, self-destructs in an apparent refusal to provide succor to a species that destroyed its native habitat.
The chaptered narrative charts the progress of Anaria’s dwindling population over weeks, months, then years. Their ever-evolving state runs through all the stages of societal collapse: hedonism, religious fanaticism and police state, to name a few. Single and bisexual, thirtysomething MR is unusually adaptable in rolling with these changes. For a while she even experiences domestic bliss, falling in love with initially standoffish pilot Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), with whom she raises a child. But nothing lasts forever here — even if the narrative itself does finally stretch toward something like eternity in a cryptic, ironical fadeout.
“Aniara” is at once grounded and philosophical, fantastical and banal. Ex-dancer Jonsson, who’s had an inconspicuous acting career until now, steps into her first lead with an understated authority that makes MR a credible Everyperson — one whose idiosyncrasies are mild enough that she can both resist and observe the extremes other characters are driven to.
The handsomely crafted film has a degree of spectacle, with good CGI work in external views of the vessel and its deep space surroundings. But rather than building expensive sets, the design team mostly makes use of existing interiors in shopping malls and other structures. Given the Swedish penchant for sleek minimalism, these work quite well as both “futuristic” and familiarly commercial spaces. Helping to tie the tonally diverse, episodic package together is an appropriately spectral electronic score by Alexander Berg.