For fans of stark Russian sci-fi like Ikarie XB-1 and Hard To Be A God, this dystopian Swedish drama will tick all those cortex-tweaking boxes. Based on a 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and a subsequent stranded-in-space opera in 1979, this film adaptation weaves complex character conflicts with philosophy, science and suffocating surrealism which, when combined with its unique central concept, bolsters Aniara into near-masterpiece territory. The only real drawback is the pacing. While shy of sedating viewers via existential carping and stuffy pensiveness like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Aniara still wilts slightly during prolonged droning moments but is compensated by a striking vision, premise, performances and a dark catharsis at its core.
Following a montage of natural disasters, we meet employee/ protagonist Mimaroben, or “MR” (Emelie Jonsson), en route to the Aniara: a “state of the art transport ship” on a three week mission to Mars with a colony absconding from our defunct, uninhabitable planet. MR works as an operator of Aniara’s subconscious probing entertainment system “Mima”; tapping into participants’ happiest memories then carriaging them back there via advanced VR. After a debris collision sends Aniara off-course with depleting fuel, its inhabitants seek refuge in Mima more frequently. MR then has to stabilise the VR system and crew’s waning mindset as her stranded community struggle with hope of finding another celestial body for transposition, along with the concept of perpetual isolation.
Like a more accessible companion piece to Clare Denis’ High Life, Aniara poses big questions and is light on fantasy action, but progresses via a plot punctuated with crushing tension and drama. Themes deriving from a not-so-sub-text and compelling character development contribute to a sashaying tale divided by chapters. The plot pootles occasionally but its crashes act as process points; respites to reflect so it never gets laborious, seem listless or fading. Characters splintered by loneliness, anxiety, paranoia and psychosis colour (or darken) MR’s path. These include a kooky astronomer (Anneli Martini), distraught mother/ pilot Isagel (Bianca Cruziero) and the conniving Captain Chefonne (Arvin Kananian), while fantastic acting augments the realism and heightens drama.
A cult is born and new ethos’s bud as Aniara’s inhabitants adapt to their stagnancy. Some crew train to process algae as food due to diminishing supplies, while the mall at the centre of the spaceship becomes a squalid no-go zone. Amidst the quasi-corporate/ minimalist design, writer/ directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s debut feature low-glides then deep dives into a doomed future psychosis, gawking deadlocked through damned eyes into a mad, galactic abyss. Ariana simmers with profundity and resounds as brave, provocative and cerebral science fiction; a work of art along the lines of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. But genre fans who favour the type of Bay Vs Emmerich battle apocalypse between building sized robots with planets for fists, beware! Or prepare for something more challenging.
ANIARA is released in cinemas and On Demand from 30th August.