ANIARA (2018, released in US 2019)
Swedish with English subtitles
Review by Daniel G. Keohane
Early into the trip, a piece of debris punctures the hull and causes critical damage, requiring the crew to jettison its fuel core. No longer having the ability to steer, the Aniara has veered horribly off-course. To get back where they came from, the crew needs to wait for a gravitational object such as a planet to slingshot around. Until that happens, they will continue on their present course and speed. A half-mumbled line explains that by the time anyone can be mobilized for a rescue, they'd be too far gone for help.
Everyone on board is faced with the possibility this may take up to two years. Only the captain, played as a somber, executive type by Arvin Kananian (Syrror TV Series) and crew understand the odds of such a specific set of circumstances required to get them turned around, is astronomical (no pun intended). In fact, it may never happen.
The Aniara is filled with thousands of people who must accept the growing possibility that a large chunk of their natural lives may be spent onboard the ship. ANIARA asks: how would such people react on finding themselves having to remain in a specific place - luxurious and spacious as it might be –with the same people over an extended period of time? To a modern human being, such is horror.
All of this will sound familiar to people across the globe today, as they hunker in their homes to ride out the virus. As this review is written the situation is still relatively new, almost an adventure. No one is yet starting to smell bad or sob into the wallpaper.
Imagine if this isolation lasted the rest of our lives, with the only alternative a dark, empty vacuum of space waiting just outside the walls of our home? That technically describes Earth, too, but the planet is much bigger than the Aniara, with plenty of places to be alone for as long as one desires.
ANIARA answers this question with honest, sometimes uncomfortable realism. Everything unfolds through the eyes of a woman known as the Mimarobe (played by a relative newcomer to feature films, Emelie Jonsson). She's a quiet, unassuming women in her thirties who runs a device called the Mima, a quasi-sentient machine that taps into a person’s stored memories (theirs or perhaps their ancestors') and allows them to relive the scene as if it's happening in the moment. Often, these are tranquil scenes amid nature. Walks in woods, the seashore, floating in a lake. Moments which in the Earth of this movie are rare if not completely gone. The Mimarobe spends her day helping one or two interested customers lay on the floor and experience these "memories" as a way of coping with the three-week journey to Mars. Hers is a peaceful, if uneventful job, akin to running a 3D motion ride in the mall that gets a few curious customers who have a few extra bucks not yet been spent on the simulated hurricane machine.
When the passengers learn they aren't going to reach Mars, or anywhere else, the Mima becomes wildly popular, being the only way to leave the walls of the massive starship, if only virtually. It becomes so popular the Mimarobe needs more help supporting it. Eventually, even the Mima itself begins to feel stressed out.
I'll stop here. One of the joys of this film is the unexpected, yet natural flow of the plot. ANIARA tells an existential story so don't expect to be all smiley and bubbly when the credits roll. You will, however - or at least I did - walk away very satisfied with your movie-going experience. It's is a beautiful, sad piece of work, much like MELANCHOLIA (2011) – dark and depressing at times, hopeful in ways one might not expect, with a few twists.
What, then, is so beautiful about this film, visually at least? Certainly not the sets, not for long at least. I'll check this after I write this review (post-script: yep I was right), it looks like they cleared out a mall for much of the ship's primary locations. Any Starbucks was kept out of frame, but set designers refrained from doing much else, no futuristic lights or panels for the interior. Even so, this added to the stifling atmosphere as events unfolded. The residential wings looked like hotel floors (many were shot inside large ferries, apparently).
The Mimarobe (IMDB refers to her as Mimaroben but everyone leaves off the 'n' so I will, too), is quiet and unassuming, and has a major crush on one of the senior crewmembers, a pilot name Isolgal. Isolgal a tough, emotionless woman who shows little to no reciprocation for our hero's affection, but neither does she rebuff them. They dance around their mutual attraction until things get bumpy and they finally come together. Their relationship acts as an emotional anchor for much of the film, a safe harbor as their miniature society slowly goes mad. Until, eventually, it isn't a safe harbor anymore.
Two forces play against each other within the crew's leadership. The first wants to suppress the truth about the direness of the situation, led by the Captain and those within his inner circle. The other is a particular crew member, known as the Astronomer, who's bluntness and drunken mumblings in public fuel rumor that all is not as leadership wants people to think.
Veteran actor Anneli Martini carries this sad, aging Astronomer with isolated, drunken perfection. She's knows the truth about what is going on but honestly could give two farts about keeping it a secret, at least not when she's had three too many drinks at the bar. Her mutterings spread rumors and fear throughout the population. She becomes a compassionate figure eventually because she alone tells the complete truth (aside from the Mimarobe, who spends her time discovering more truths than actually knowing them). Her character is a critical device used to give the viewer a peak behind the curtain, helping one understand what the situation truly is for these people.
Soon after the news breaks about their predicament, what seems a throwaway scene is, in fact, the pivotal moment of ANIARA and the essence of what the film is about. A middle-aged passenger wails in the throes of a panic attack. Once the guards subdue him, the Mimarobe scolds the man, reminding him how much harsher life on Mars would have been than their life here on this luxury vessel would ever be. If they spent the rest of their lives here, wouldn't it still be far better than the hardships of their original destination? Ironically, the passenger doesn't understand a word of Swedish, only German. A crewmember offers to translate her words, but the Mimarobe sadly shakes her head and says no.
It's a crucial scene because it is so true. They are going to be fine, living off current supplies then eventually food made from plankton farmed and harvested in a large hydroponics section. Compared to where they were going, they have it made. And yet… and yet.
Written and directed by Hugo Lija and Pella Kagerman, who before this film worked primarily on short films, ANIARA is based on a famous 1956 Swedish poem by that country's Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson. It's a fascinating work (and very long). Translated from the original Swedish, it isn't always an easy read. I see vividly where the overall mix of claustrophobia and eternal wonder comes from in the film. ANIARA captures with a loving touch the yearning, craving emotion of the epic poem, which itself reads like the ramblings of madman. I know, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but neither does the human mind if you think about how you think about, well, anything. Interestingly, the Mima is a major character in Martinson's epic work, a sentient AI which reveals past memories of the dreamer, but here the Mima is picking up other thoughts, other images from something out there, far, far off. At least, I think so. This aspect isn't part of the film, except for the eventual worship of the "machine" its ability to bring peace in their emotional chaos. When tragedy happens, you know it's coming but I'll refrain from talking about it here, the worship becomes even more devoted and cultish.
On that note, ANIARA is rated R, mostly for nudity and sexual situations (I'd say language as well but, it's in Swedish), so a heads up if you plan to sit down and watch it with young kids or your grandmother. Not to worry, this is a movie that thrives on stark realism, so these scenes aren't filled with models. This is another aspect that makes the viewer identify well with the film: the people are real, lumpy and awkward like the rest of us. And, now and then, they're also naked and moaning.
Special effects are minimal, mostly miniatures, primarily in the beginning and the occasional external shot of the ship. When used, the scenes are rendered well and add to the wonder and terror of being catapulted forever into the deep recesses of space. The music, composed by Alexander Berg is a subtle, sad thread woven throughout the movie, coming to the forefront only occasionally. I'm surprised he has no other credits to his name.
At one point the Astronomer illustrates for the Mimarobe the vastness of the space they all find themselves surrounded by (this interchange, in a slightly altered form, is also part of the poem). She points to a bubble embedded near the bottom of her drinking glass. If the glass is outer space, the bubble is Aniara. All air bubbles eventually move through glass, just very slowly. Compared to their surroundings, they appears to not move at all. The Aniara is hurtling through space at dizzying speeds (sixty-four kilometers per second). Compared to the vast distances between where it came from, and whatever lies before it (the constellation Lyra, in this case), it seems not to be moving at all.
There are, in fact, two ANIARA films. This one, and a more avante garde version from 1960, directed by Arne Arnborn. This earlier version, also Swedish, is an opera performed by the Sveriges Radio production company. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a chance to see it (not available anywhere I can find).
Finally, though ANIARA is a Swedish-language film, to borrow the words of recent Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho, don't let a few words at the bottom of the screen come between you and this amazing, if saturnine, experience. You're trapped at home for a while, anyway, and need something to pass the time (sans the children). Why not choose something to keep you from thinking about the void of space outside your own windows?
ANIARA gets four stars for its intensity and passion. And, these days, it is all the more timely with its message.
Daniel G. Keohane is the Stoker-nominated author of Solomon’s Grave, Margaret’s Ark and Plague of Darkness, as well as Nightmare in Greasepaint (with LL Soares) and Destroyer of Worlds under the name G. Daniel Gunn. A founding member of the New England Horror Writers, he's had dozens of short stories published in such venues as Cemetery Dance Magazine, Apex Digest, Borderlands 6, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and more, and is co-editor of the anthologies Wicked Tales, Wicked Witches and Wicked Haunted. His ever-growing family lives in Massachusetts. More information on his ongoing (and upcoming) work you can visit www.dankeohane.com.