Aniara: It’s a long trip to nowhere, but it’s worth it

A Science Fiction
Written and directed by Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja

This slow, frightful, depressing space movie from Sweden carries a heavy charge. Unless you watch nothing but Hollywood movies, you know almost from the start how it’s going to end, and it isn’t going to be good. And yet there are moments of transcendent joy.

But first, we see hurricanes and other natural disasters – climate change has made Earth much worse than in 2019. Some sort of transport is bringing people, most of them scared, to a very large spaceship. Quite a few people have burned and disfigured faces; the causes are left to our imaginations. A mother tells her very young child to say goodbye to the Earth.

The ship is called Aniara, and from the inside, it looks like a very nice cruise ship. There are shops and restaurants, a swimming pool, and a spanking new playground for the kids. They’re starting off on a three-week journey to their new home on Mars. Apparently, the red planet has been terraformed, while our little green world has become all but unlivable for humans.

Soon after the voyage starts, an accident leaves the Aniara unable to control its own path. It’s moving out towards the edge of the solar system, and there’s no way to turn it back. Nor will anyone attempt to rescue them. Luckily, their algae system will provide them with air and food (not particularly tasty food) indefinitely. They’re trapped, but they have an infinite life support system.

If that seems unlikely, it is. Aniara is not a scientifically accurate film. I could list several problems that, if you think about it, would make this story impossible. Best not to think about it, and allow yourself to experience the story, which works on its own terms.

That worthwhile story centers on MR (Emelie Jonsson), a young woman on the crew. Her job is to help guests with the Mima, a room that can turn your fond memories into artificial reality in your mind. MR is not the movie’s heroine. There isn’t one. she’s just the person whose eyes the story is told.

As the “three-week journey” becomes years, things change. Cults arise. Suicide becomes common. Fights break out. The Mima room starts giving people nightmares. The captain turns fascist – cruel and not to be trusted. During all this, MR has casual sex with a man and falls deeply in love with a woman. People have mixed feelings about bringing more children into the ship, even as the captain talks about educating the new generations.

The whole Art Department should be cheered for the look of this film. The combination of soundstage sets and existing locations (including what I believe was a big airport) create the feel of a spaceliner built for the tourist trade. And over the years, those spiffy sets look dirtier and lonelier.

Aniara will not make you enthusiastic about colonizing Mars. You’ll come out of the theater feeling depressed and disturbed. Maybe we should just re-terraform the Earth.

This film opens Friday, May 17 at Bay Area theaters.