Aniara at EIFF: Startlingly ambitious, beautiful and uncompromising
Unfortunately for the creators of Aniara, the startlingly ambitious, beautiful, and uncompromising Swedish science fiction film showing at EIFF, Claire Denis’ High Life was released earlier in the year. When one of the world’s most acclaimed and iconic auteurs releases a masterpiece cerebral sci-fi with many of the same concepts and themes as you, then you’re in a bit of a tight spot. That said, in any other year Aniara would be able to hold its own as one of the most interesting, thoughtful pieces of science fiction to blast its way onto the big screen in recent memory.
Emelie Jonsson stars as a so-called Mimarobe – the operator of a cutting-edge intergalactic type of therapy – aboard the titular spacecraft, which is undertaking a three-week journey to Mars. Due to global warming, the Earth has overheated to a dangerous extent – many of the fleeing passengers are covered in third-degree burns – and humanity has been forced to relocate to survive. Yet, impressively early into the voyage, a statistically improbable but narratively convenient piece of space debris forces the captain (Arvin Kananian) to jettison the ship’s reactors in order to avoid an explosion.
Initially, the Aniara’s management tells their thousands of passengers that they might need to wait two years before they can harness the power of a distant celestial body in order to turn around, but one suspects a large number of them know the actual truth: there will be no opportunity to do so. The Aniara is, in fact, a giant steel sarcophagus drifting towards annihilation.
It’s a premise fraught with cosmic horror: Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s film frequently turns its attention to the dark infinity beyond the Aniara’s windows as it protagonists faces freeze in sheer terror at the fate that awaits them. In a brilliant analogy involving a stationary air bubble in a drink, the film extends this same terror towards the audience. Its key strength lies in its impressive ability to convey the inevitability of death and sheer hopelessness of the situation in a way that goes beyond the conceptual.
As with High Life, Aniara’s microcosm of society is clearly supposed to echo our own existentially-troubling drift through the cosmos. If we conclude, along with many of the ship’s citizens, that their life has become meaningless, then how are we able to import meaning into our own pre-apocalyptic existence right now? The ship has been purposely, provocatively designed like an extra-terrestrial shopping mall with jet engines – clean, commerce-driven and soulless. What is life in a late-stage capitalist society but sleeping and consuming? And, if there’s nothing more to it than that, does it matter? That’s for you to decide. Some of the Aniara’s crew learn to accept this situation; some crumble under the philosophical pressure – which camp will you fall into?
There’s also a bit of Thanatos that runs through the film. Unlike High Life, the path of the Aniara isn’t set on an accelerated track to oblivion, so Denis’ ideas (or should we say Freud’s) about reproduction and destruction don’t easily apply, but the looming threat of death definitely brings out a sexual frenzy in the passengers that manifests itself as a religious, mythos-driven act of righteousness and ritualism. It’s as if sex itself has become a mechanical impulse driven by something above desire; deeper than lust.
Out of hopelessness, too, comes hope. Over the course of Aniara’s runtime, we see an entire religion (possibly multiple religions) pop-up with their own esoteric, self-contained mythologies that represent the propensity for human perseverance against all the odds. Even in the face of inevitable destruction, many of our characters insist on maintaining hope. It’s tempting to look at this from a cynical point of view – as a ‘hopeless’ sort of hope – but I don’t necessarily think that’s the angle Aniara is pursuing. Again, what it all means for you is up to you.
The seductive power of nostalgia is an elemental force that powers a lot of the resolve our characters possess. The Mima itself is a futuristic AI that’s able to give users visions of a pre-corrupted earth. As disaster looms, the citizens of the ship become increasingly compelled to indulge in these visions. It’s an idea that feels increasingly relevant in today’s age: both the concept of culture continuously harking back to bygone ages, and that of the population choosing to tune-out of their own self-destruction as opposed to facing it straight on.
It helps that the whole thing looks absolutely beautiful. Shot by DP Sophie Winqvist, interior shots of the ship make the Aniara feel both idealistic and nightmarish. Like a cosmic remake of High Rise, decay begins to set in and the ship’s late-stage capitalistic commercial aesthetic begins to crumble into dust. Powerful external CGI shots show the ship as a silent city drifting through space. As the power begins to flounder, we see the hulking vessel black against black, with only pointillist constellations revealing it has any presence at all. Decay, rot, and ultimately destruction mirror the decreasing human presence on the mission until, inevitably, even that appears.
In its last 10 minutes, Aniara reaches for something beyond the Earthly concerns of most of its runtime, both in time and space. Just how thought-provoking you find these scenes will depend on how much you buy into the philosophical discourse that came before. But to my mind, this is a major piece of work – uncompromising, provocative, and unapologetically cerebral – worth seeing as a companion piece to Denis’ masterwork, but from a different angle.