Based on epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, Aniara is a distinctly adult environmental allegory that comes across like WALL-E directed by Claire Denis. Its cloying, fatalistic bleakness becomes almost overbearing in places, but its commitment to its central ideas, as well as a strong, sinuous central performance, as well as some startling visual flourishes, launch this slice of Scandinavian miserablism into the stratosphere of recent science fiction.
The film follows a woman known only as Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), a low-level employee on the spaceship Aniara; a vessel that ferries the survivors of an environmental catastrophe from the ruined Earth to a new life on Mars. During the routine three-week voyage to the red planet a freak accident leaves the vessel adrift in space with no fuel and no hope of ever reaching their destination.
Mimaroben is the guardian of the MIMA, an empathy-driven AI which allows the visitor to immerse themselves entirely in their favourite memories on Earth. Mimaroben’s happy place is a lush Edenic forest right out of a Herbal Essences advert. She is the audience surrogate and a necessary point of good cheer and optimistic perseverance and finds herself an increasingly integral part of the crew as more and more aimless travellers turn to the artificial comfort of the machine.
This premise sets up a plethora of narrative possibilities, many of which are glanced at by the filmmakers before being summarily jettisoned. It seems at first that we may be getting a cautionary tale of sentient technology gone rogue. Later, as a bizarre fertility cult springs up around the MIMA it looks like a Lord of the Flies-style parable about our animal natures is on the cards. Instead, Aniara hovers over some arresting imagery instead of dwelling on any particular incident, using these events to mark the inexorable passing of time. The aim is to show the gradual disintegration of the collective psyche as the inhabitants of the Aniara try to maintain the rhythms of a normal life even as it’s exposed as being entirely meaningless.
Split into chapters marking increasing increments of time things become increasingly despairing the longer the film progresses. Even Mimaroben’s stout defences begin to crumble, indicating just how bad things are getting. This slough of despond, along with the vignettish, opaque narrative risks repelling the viewer as moments of levity get in increasing short supply. However, it continues to raise interesting topics like the shifting of hierarchical structures as societal circumstances change, our compulsion to over-consume, the instinct towards faith, and the corrupting influence of power, and its corresponding manipulation and misinformation. If Bergman had ever made a sci-fi, it may have looked something like Aniara.
Though it sets up various plot strands that it fails to carry through – issues surrounding food, water, children and weapons are raised and then forgotten – Kagerman and Lilja’s debut feature is a thoroughly impressive and ambitious effort embellished by an instinctive and endearing every-woman performance by Emelie Jonsson. It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste and its view on humanity is perhaps blacker than the depths of space through which the titular craft drifts, but Aniara is sci-fi of melancholy near-brilliance.
On Blu-ray from Mon 21 Oct 2019