Aniara: a disappointing critique of human society in a spaceship on a doomed voyage

Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja, “Aniara” (2018)

An ambitious project to bring a poem by the Swedish poet / author / former sailor Harry Martinson (who co-won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1974) to the big screen, “Aniara” tells the tale of a spaceship transporting colonists from a future Earth ravaged by the effects of climate change and environmental destruction to Mars where new homes billed as a Promised Land are waiting for them. Just as you’d expect though, a bit of space junk from some long-forgotten satellite or previous space journey hits the ship and sends it off-course into the deeper recesses of space. To make matters worse, the crew has had to eject the ship’s nuclear-powered fuel reserves to avoid an even worse catastrophe. From then on, Aniara sails farther and farther towards the outermost limits of the cosmos in a vain attempt to find a planet whose gravitational pull can be used by the crew to manoeuvre the ship around and send it back to Earth or to Mars.

In the meantime, while the crew hope to find this planet, a ship employee known as Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), hereafter MR, has been tasked with looking after the passengers’ psychological health by operating a giant machine called Mima which can read people’s thoughts and draw on their memories and dreams to create virtual reality worlds in which their owners can participate. For a few weeks, Mima operates perfectly but after the accident, more and more people want to use Mima as a form of escape from the frustrations of waiting for help or rescue or good news from the Aniara crew, and Mima eventually breaks down completely from the overload of painful memories and nightmares. MR is blamed for Mima’s breakdown and is briefly imprisoned, along with one of the crew, navigator Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), but both women are released a year or so later. By then, they have formed a couple and get to share accommodation.

As the weeks roll into months and the months roll into years, in spite of constant reassurances by Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) that all is well, people’s hopes turn into despair and the glittering consumerist society on Aniara – it is outfitted like a giant passenger cruise liner – breaks down. In various chapters that take place during the ship’s lifetime, people turn to religious cults for guidance and reason for living; some of these cults seem to be no more than excuses for sexual orgies. Isagel becomes pregnant in one such orgy and gives birth to a boy. While the child gives hope to both MR and Isagel, Isagel later becomes depressed at the thought that the child will live his entire life in an artificial environment; viewers can tell 10 parsecs away what tragedy will befall both Isagel and the baby.

MR spends her time teaching esoteric space mathematics to child and teenage passengers in the hope that some of them will learn enough to become part of the Aniara crew. In her spare time, she tries to cheer up Isagel and help bring up the baby, assist the crew where needed and rework part of Mima to create a beam screen of natural Earth landscapes around the ship for passengers to view.

By necessity, the narrative is broken up into chapters that provide snapshots of the gradual deterioration of human society on board the ship, as crew and passenger expectations of a quick, easy and luxurious trip turn into despair and despondency, leading to violence, the proliferation of religious cults, substance abuse and addiction, and suicide. At the same time, due to the episodic nature of the narrative, there is no indication in the film of people gradually overcoming their differences and forming associations to help one another across the class divide or the crew hierarchy, in spite of Captain Chefone’s increasingly despotic and irrational behaviour. Directors Kagerman and Lilja are clearly no believers in people’s ability to overcome lifetimes of imbibing capitalist and consumerist values and ideologies. Unfortunately the film does a poor job as a study of trauma, due in part to its structure: no reason is given as to why so many people form cults or try to kill themselves – it’s as if the directors have assumed such behaviours are inevitable and always follow in a closed environment of extreme need where there is no hope of rescue, so viewers are expected to go along with such plot stereotypes. The result is a very shallow movie.

Character development remains at a woeful level of superficiality and the romance between MR and Isagel doesn’t quite come off as genuine, but as a sop to identity politics. The conflict between MR and the increasingly capricious and incompetent captain seems equally shallow, and MR’s astronomer friend (Anneli Martini) who foresees the ship’s doom is wasted as a character. There should have been plenty of room in the narrative for panics arising from food shortages or a breakdown in some essential item (such as the water supply or the electricity) but strangely the film-makers opted to miss opportunities for testing character and people making decisions that could spell life or death for the whole population and which point to future directions for society on board to develop towards. Can people overcome despair and lack to find comfort in their own imaginations, resources and one another, and combine to create a new co-operative society with better leadership and better decision-making abilities? The film suggests not.

In all, while the cinematography, design and the special effects were very good, much of the science behind “Aniara” is quite dodgy – there is no explanation as to where water for washing sheets and clothes comes from, and in a future where ships routinely take people back and forth between Earth and Mars, surely a technology for cleaning things that does away with water would be more credible – and the sociology is riddled with cheap stereotyping. There is no attempt to explore and criticise capitalism and social hierarchy in the film even though capitalism provides the context in which the Aniara ship sails on its doomed voyage: people did have to pay to board the ship and enjoy its luxuries, and MR was expected as an employee to provide a service passengers had already paid for. The film is a great disappointment.