Well, this was rather bleak- trust a cautionary Swedish sci-fi to suggest that Despair Conquers All rather than Hollywood’s usual Love Conquers All nonsense. It was also quite brilliant, a sci-fi film which is High Concept to its very core. Aniara isn’t perfect by any means, but its absolutely one of the most engrossing sci fi films I’ve seen for quite some time. When the end credits rolled, I was quite dumbstruck, aware that I’d watched something really quite extraordinary. Again, it isn’t perfect- a few performances don’t quite ring true, there are one or two gaps in logic, a few fairly minor plot-holes likely down to being faithful to its 1950s source (and how space travel was envisaged back then), but its easy to forgive all that when the film as a whole succeeds so well.
Based on a 1956 epic poem from the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, its a really ambitious film that imagines the possible end of humanity at the macro level (humanity abandoning a destroyed Earth to seek possible survival on Mars) and the micro (the steady disintegration of a closed society of colonists trapped on a doomed space vessel). The Aniara is an implausibly gigantic colony ship that ferries survivors from Earth to a life on Mars, but this usually routine three-week voyage is interrupted by a catastrophic impact of space debris, damaging the ships engines and sending it wildly off course. The ships captain desperately attempts to maintain calm when he reveals to his passengers that the incident threatens to extend the voyage by as much as two years while a route back to Mars can be found.
The beauty of Aniara is how mundane this future is. The colony ship is like a modern cruise ship, a hotel in space full of restaurants and arcades and clubs and theatres designed to entertain colonists for a three-week trip and presumably distract them from the cold reality of space travel and the hard life awaiting them on Mars. But following the incident that damages the Aniara, it is now an enclosed society within a fantasy façade, as if the colonists are suddenly trapped in a failing Disneyland during an Apocalypse. Its the Earth they thought they had all escaped in microcosm, dying all over again.
Aniara throws in ruminations of our place in the cosmos, the passengers increasingly fragile human psyches struggling to cope, collapsing in the face of Eternity and the vastness of the void that has trapped them. It purports an AI which elects for self-destruction rather than continue suffering the pain of increasingly damaged minds it is designed to heal. This subtext, of a suicidal AI unable to face its fate, is mirrored in the reactions of many of the colonists. As time wears them down and the Aniara’s enclosed, trapped society threatens to collapse, the whole fragments, people turning to religion and cults, the sheer physical escape of orgy’s or drugs or drink, while the more desperate souls taking the brutal path of anxiety, depression and suicide.
Its, er, not an optimistic film. I could easily summarise the film -and I’m sure many have- as Wall-E crossed with the original Solaris movie: indeed it really feels like its from some other era, back when sci-fi films were more cautionary, like Soylent Green or Silent Running, and yet it feels so very timely, reflecting our society and how we live, how we cope through seeking escape from our realities.
Its also one of those films that is made Great by its ending, which I can’t really explain here because I always try to keep my reviews spoiler free when I can, but you know, the ending is perfect. Comparing it to the end of Citizen Kane is possibly misleading, but if you know how that film ends, how its revelation makes the film truly great and leaves it lingering in your head for days afterward, then you might have an idea what I mean. There is no real twist or shock in Aniara‘s ending, but its the perfect denouncement, perfectly sensical and satisfying even if it isn’t exactly reassuring. But yeah, its PERFECT and its haunting me- you just cannot leave this film behind.