What happens when a luxury transport ship on a routine voyage to Mars is thrown off course, set adrift on an endless voyage across the cosmos? That’s the premise behind 2018’s Aniara, based on the 1956 Swedish epic poem of the same name.
The answer, ultimately, is quite bleak. Aniara fits fully into the nihilistic ennui that Scandinavians—materially prosperous but spiritually adrift—relish so stoically. Seriously, the Swedes seemed obsessed with existential crises and a sense of meaningless in life. At its best, that gives us the likes of Danish Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; at its worst, it creates the kind of mindless pleasure-seeking the passengers of the film’s title ship indulge in here.
For all the film’s depressing messaging about the futility of life (to be fair, being trapped on an endless voyage in space, eating only algae to survive, would be a fairly depressing and psychologically destructive experience), it’s a fascinating look into how a society might develop, survive, and perish in the depths of outer space.
Fair warning: just as the Swedes seem to relish wallowing in nihilistic self-pity, they also obsess over lesbianism. Granted, this culture is the one that invited masses of North African migrants to its pristine cities, only to apologize when those migrants rape and murder Swedish women. Swedish men are thoroughly emasculated. But, good Lord, every Swedish-language film I’ve watched recently (a surprising few) has featured a protagonist or heroine involved in some kind of unrealistic lesbian relationship. Aniara does not shy away from depicting this aberrant lifestyle very graphically, and there’s also a scene with a dude’s wang, so if you’re one of my aunts reading this blog post, maybe skip this movie.
If you can get over the frank portrayals of Sapphic love, the movie is actually quite good. It’s good because it’s so unsettling. Even though it involves a space flight to Mars on a futuristic interplanetary cruise ship, it’s easy to imagine ourselves in that same situation, trapped aboard some vessel with no idea when we can get off. Anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airline has, at some point, experienced this sensation: stuck on the tarmac for two hours, awaiting take-off. The number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, with people trapped at sea for weeks awaiting rescue, also gives this film some resonance.
In such situations, passengers are always desperate for one thing: information. How long will it take? How long do I have to sit here? Cell phones will instantly come out, as everyone desperately pecks away for some answers.
Now, imagine that situation, but instead of a two-hour wait on an un-air-conditioned plane in August, you’re doomed to drift forward in space for eternity. That is the heart of the conflict of Aniara, and what makes it so compelling to watch.
The film opens with the ship embarking on a three-week routine voyage to Mars. The ship itself is quite luxurious, with a shopping mall aesthetic. Passengers wear street clothes, and enjoy a variety of entertainments and distractions. There is ample food on board, including several excellent restaurants. High-end shopping is available, too.
Some space debris hits the Aniara, which must take evasive action. The maneuvers save the ship, its crew, and its passengers, but the debris punctures the ship’s nuclear fuel core, triggering an imminent meltdown. The crew has no choice but to jettison the fuel cells, meaning the ship can no longer be steered. It must drift along its predetermined course until it encounters a celestial body with enough gravity for the ship to swing back towards Mars using the body’s orbit, which the captain announces will take two years.
Upon hearing the news, passengers are despaired. One woman—you know the type—complains that she promised her son that they would be on Mars in time for his fourth birthday, completely clueless to the reality of the situation (and as if such a promise is more important than the lives of everyone on board). The captain treats everyone to snacks (just like an airline would do!) to calm the situation, and consults with his crew.
Fortunately, the ship’s algae farm is functional, and its production can be ramped up to feed everyone on board. Passengers are assigned jobs in the algae farm or the water purification plant, and life continues.
Knowing they will be stuck in space for an extended period of time, a large number of passengers use MIMA, an artificial intelligence that allows users to experience realistic visions of Earth based on their own memories and experiences. The heroine of the film is the Mimarobe, the skilled technician who interacts with MIMA and helps users experience positive memories and dreams.
Soon it becomes apparent that there is no celestial body along the Aniara‘s present course, and that the ship is set adrift indefinitely. Passengers begin to commit suicide, form strange mystery cults, and overuse the MIMA to cope with their claustrophobia. Soon enough, the MIMA—so overwhelmed by visions of destruction passengers witnessed on Earth—destroys itself from despair, depriving passengers of their primary means of escape. The Mimarobe is imprisoned for allegedly tampering with MIMA, and the ship descends further into despair.
Hope presents itself in the form of a deep space probe, which is brought aboard the ship. The Captain foolishly tells everyone that it is a rescue pod containing fuel cells, and that they will soon be able to turn the ship around. The probe is brought aboard, but is made of alien materials; none of the Aniara‘s tools can penetrate its mysteries, and it soon sits lifeless and neglected in the cargo hold.
Watching the crew and passengers move from one tragedy to the next—with occasional hopes of salvation that are only dashed against the rocks of reality—is tough. This movie is draining to watch at points because it’s so relentlessly bleak. But it’s also a fascinating consideration of how societies work, and how societies cope with danger, privation, and the rest.
There are moments of faith, too. One commander is a devout Christian (based on his massive Crucifix, probably a Catholic), and his faith helps him endure. Passengers form mystery cults, none of which truly satisfy their spiritual needs. There is, too, the bleak character of The Astronomer, a sassy, middle-aged woman who has given up hope and believes everything is meaningless (she is meant to be the voice of reason in the film—hopeless reason, devoid of faith for a better world).
Ultimately, though, watching a materially decadent people disintegrate in space is a stark reminder that we should not put our faith in things of the flesh, but in God. Characters begin to refer to the ship as a tomb or a “sarcophagus,” and, indeed, it becomes that as life support systems slowly fail. But imagine what joy the passengers could have experienced if, instead of giving in to despair, they had embraced the True Faith.
Still, in such a dire, lonely situation, it would be difficult. Aniara is a film that has really stuck with me, and if you like those kinds of movies, I highly recommend this one. It gives the viewer much to ponder. It is a depressing movie, however, and it is deliberately paced (though the runtime of 106 minutes is brisk), so it won’t be for everyone.
That said, if you like deep science-fiction about the nature of humanity and society, Aniara is for you.