A spaceship carrying settlers to Mars is knocked off course, causing the consumption-obsessed passengers to consider their place in the universe.
Directors: Pella Kagerman (as Pella Kågerman), Hugo Lilja
Writers: Pella Kagerman (as Pella Kågerman), Hugo Lilja
Stars: Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian
The opening credits of Aniara, the debut feature from short-film hyphenates Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, scroll like closing credits over images of earthly disasters, because of course they do: this is the end. Mars is the new West, and what’s left of humanity–many of those faces scarred or deformed without comment–is packed aboard a new Noah’s Ark bound for the red planet. It will take three weeks, but in the meantime enjoy all the amenities and luxuries of a high-end spa, and be sure to take advantage of the Mima lounge, where a digital godhead will tap into your memories and provide a soothing mental escape to Earth as you once knew it. Unfortunately for the colonists, a rogue screw strikes the ship’s hull and Aniara is forced to empty its fuel tank. The captain, Chefone (Arvin Kananian), claims they just need to catch the orbit of a celestial body to get back on course, something that will take two years, max; the captain lies. MR (Isabelle Huppert-esque Emelie Jonsson) is a “mimarobe,” sort of a combination tech support/apostle for Mima, which becomes a very popular attraction over time. So much so that it gets overwhelmed by all the despair it’s having to tranquilize, and self-destructs. Although MR warned him of this outcome, Chefone disciplines her for it, because Mima was the opiate for Aniara’s masses. Not their god, though–he, in his unchecked power, his command of his own “planet,” is God, and he’s decided to be the Old Testament kind.
Years pass, marked by title cards that grow archly funny the longer Aniara’s in limbo, yet there’s a seriousness of intent here as the film considers a utopia’s decline in the absence of progress. A cult springs up around Mima; MR and fellow crew member Isagel (Carrie-Anne Moss-esque Bianca Cruzeiro) enter a tender and tragic romance; and MR is also assigned a class full of kids to teach physics, so they can help calculate various eventualities. A friend compared Aniara to High Rise because of the breakdown in social order within a bubble of civilization, but it doesn’t really deal with class hierarchy in the same way except in terms of how Chefone abuses labour. The TIFF program guide compares it to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but Aniara isn’t really a commentary on consumerism or the Edenic aspects of life in a shopping mall. The film is, I suppose, a bit of an inkblot (I thought, at key moments, of “Waiting for Godot”, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Michael Winterbottom’s great Jude), and its roots in an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, first published in 1956, may provide some clue as to why it all feels so maddeningly familiar (and perhaps why it all seems more perceptive than cynical), because Martinson wrote it to convey his existential panic at the dawn of the Cold War and for most of us the rise of global fascism has conjured an uncanny facsimile of that anxiety. Given that it’s ultimately about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, Aniara is astonishingly ambitious, an unlikely emotional rollercoaster anchored by a beautifully-realized protagonist who manages to maintain hope and optimism without being a Pollyanna. Jonsson’s face registers fear, disappointment, hurt, but her MR perseveres. The pride she takes in surviving humbled me.
– Bill Chambers, Film Freak Central