Aniara Review: Dystopian Science Fiction Worth Watching
by Sam Kolesnik
Is it really dystopia if there are nightclubs, coffee bars and luxury retail? Aniara, a science fiction drama directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, explores what existential suffering looks like when it festers beneath layers of consumerist amenities.
At first glance, Aniara’s version of the future doesn’t seem so bad after all. We’re introduced to a group of passengers being transported from an ambiguously unsuitable Earth (we never do find out exactly what happened there) to a shopping-mall-sized spaceship. They’re headed for their new home on Mars and they don’t seem all that sad about it since there’s plenty to distract them.
A Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) invites passengers to try Mima, which is a form of sentient technology that allows people to experience their old memories of Earth in a manner akin to modern virtual reality. Woods, streams, birds in flight. All of the things the spaceship lacks. In the initial days of the voyage, few passengers seem interested in Mima; they are too busy buying things to remember Earth.
Aniara’s hook comes fast and is the propulsion needed to sufficiently explore the film’s heavy existential themes. The spaceship has a disturbance, loses its fuel, and veers off course. The Captain (“Chefone”, played by Arvin Kananian) makes an announcement that it may take years before the spaceship will be able to turn around.
No need to despair, though, as they have all of the amenities and resources of, say, their own planet. They can survive for years drifting aimlessly in space - even decades! Is this good news, or bad? Would life on Mars for these passengers have been any more joyful? Aniara probes at the answers, but never settles.
The characters are all forced into a confrontation with the meaning of their human existence. Their place in the universe is reduced (or perhaps just clarified) to aimlessly drifting through endless space.
Many cope by suddenly turning to the one thing they seemed so willing to neglect -- Earth. They flock to Mima en masse to try to remember what it felt like to be in nature. Mimaroben seems to derive special self-worth from the daily deluge of visitors; she’s one of the few people who still has meaningful work. Eventually, the sentient Mima can’t take the human toll anymore and self-destructs. The passengers’ confrontation with existence intensifies -- Earth really is a thing of the past now and what are humans without it?
Aniara explores how humans might cope in a post-Earth world. Some passengers turn to religion. Many commit suicide. Some, like Mimaroben, persevere with fortitude. She seems to seek out at every turn a reason to keep going -- whether it’s love, employment, parenting or invention. Mimaroben seeks purpose, even within the spaceship’s rigid confines.
Her girlfriend, Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), is a strong psychological counterpoint, lamenting that there is a lack of possibilities as she spirals toward insurmountable dread. Nevermind that Mimaroben always finds something to occupy the time -- Isagel just can’t find any meaning in the day-to-day.
There’s plenty to commend about this high-concept science fiction film. The world of Aniara is immersive and the characters are relatable. Emelie Jonsson is memorable as the imperturbable Mimaroben. Her serene compassion and ever-present desire to contribute to her world, no matter its limits, draws our sympathy. Arvin Kananian likewise offers an entertaining performance as a charismatic leader who tries to manage his own “planet” in an unpredictable universe.
While the movie’s bold ending won’t sit well with everyone, it’s a deserved stop point to a rich and thought-provoking journey. Aniara is a smart, layered dystopian film -- and sadly all too relevant.