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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
A sci-fi film that has it all: Outer space, European ennui, and sex cults

A sci-fi film that has it all: Outer space, European ennui, and sex cults

Photo: Magnet Releasing
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The condemned: Aniara (2019)

The plot: Aniara doesn’t have too much of a plot, but what it possesses in spades is ennui: long, agonizing moments of ennui. People in this film are overwhelmingly unhappy, and they enjoy conveying that existential angst via looks that say, “Please don’t talk to me unless you’ve got powerful narcotics to relieve me of this mental burden that is life itself.” Admittedly, they’ve got a good reason for that attitude, what with being on a one-way trip to death in the farthest reaches of space, but still.

The film begins on a dying Earth, where we see the latest group of émigrés abandoning the climate change-devastated planet, traveling via space elevator (it’s a real, albeit wildly unlikely, possibility!) up to the space cruiser Aniara, which will convey them to a new home on Mars via a three-week journey. Unfortunately, within the first hour of their trip, they’re hit by some space debris that knocks them off course and destroys their entire fuel supply, leaving them unable to steer—meaning that, barring some miraculous rescue, they’ll be slowly drifting in a random direction. Head pilot Chefone (Arvin Kananian) addresses the entire assembled crew and passengers (several thousand people, including lots of families), reassuring them they’re safe and possessed of a sufficient food and water supply (algae stock, a perpetually renewable resource) to last them until they can use the gravity of an upcoming celestial body to slingshot them back on course. The time until they reach that body? Two years.

This sounds like a real bummer, until the real bummer is revealed: Within three weeks, everyone starts to learn the truth—they won’t get close enough to any celestial bodies to get back on track. They’re stuck in a permanent drift out into the cosmos. Before you can say, “Who decided to make a Bergman film in space?” the film jumps ahead three years. Then four. Then five. Then—in the last five minutes of the movie—years 10, 24, and 5,981,407. No, I’m not kidding. This seems like a good place to mention one of the main ways everyone on board the Aniara has kept their sanity: Our unnamed protagonist who only refers to herself as “MR” (short for “Mimaroben,” her job title) works aboard the ship as the facilitator of “Mima,” an AI system that lets humans enter immersive, nature-surrounded memories of Earth as it once was, for a near-spiritual experience of zen calm. Needless to say, this goes south: In year three, Mima decides the increasing number of messed-up humans demanding the AI system enter their memories and provide them balm are bringing it down. Mima self-destructs, and soon, the population is descending into star-worshipping cults, drug-fueled orgies, and more, while those in charge try to keep everything from spinning out of control, all while endlessly staring down the inky blackness of the void.

There are additional events, each more bleak than the last: Mimaroben gets blamed for Mima’s destruction, and is put in jail, where she begins a romantic relationship with a woman who was a junior pilot, but jailed for sticking up for Mimaroben when the ship’s crew concocted the story about Mimaroben being responsible for Mima’s fate. They end up having a son. The crew discovers an approaching probe that will provide fuel to let them turn around and save themselves. But the probe is of unknown origin, and too advanced for them to be able to use. In despair, Mimaroben’s lover kills herself and their son. Two decades later, there’s just a small group of people left, chanting and waiting for death. It’s an outer-space adventure for the whole family! Did I mention this is based on a well-known (in Sweden, anyway) poem? Swedish poets hate space, is the broad takeaway.

Over-the-top box copy: “A gripping and unpredictable space ride,” goes the front-cover blurb, which is accurate, as is this descriptor: “When Earth ends, a dangerous quest for a new life on Mars begins.” Way to avoid the over-the-top copy, Aniara. I’m going to chalk it up to that Scandinavian honesty—it wouldn’t have surprised me to see “This is a movie. You may or may not like it,” on the back cover.

The descent: First of all, if a movie is set on a spaceship, there is automatically a 20% increase in the likelihood that I will watch it. Spaceships are great, even depressing Swedish spaceships. But the trailer made this look genuinely compelling—like an actual film, not the goofy-ass crap that often attracts the attention of Home Video Hell. In other words, those looking for another VelociPastor may want to sit this one out. Aniara is stylish, and somber, and even when it’s descending into the depths of space cult-, orgy-fueled weirdness, it retains an icy Euro arthouse vibe that lets you know people with actual talent are responsible for this thing. It’s rare to see a little foreign sci-fi indie that could compete with a studio film, design-wise, but this Swedish-Danish coproduction manages to look as though it had money to burn.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Lead actors Emelie Jonsson and Arvin Kananian have been in some well-received Swedish TV shows, but that’s about it as far as the cast goes. This is co-writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s first feature film, as well as one of the first for the cinematographer, editor, and many more behind the camera. They’ve all made a number of shorts, but I admire the ambition of everyone signing on to this thing as their first crack at feature filmmaking. So, no—no theoretically heavenly talent, just talent.

The execution: It should be noted right away that Aniara breathes the rarefied air belonging to a small group of Home Video Hell entries known as Actually Good MoviesTM. This film is entertaining, and even when the narrative goes off the rails at times, it remains compelling in a serious (as opposed to so-dumb-it’s-great) kind of way. This is a sweeping, strange space opera, full of striking imagery and understated performances.

With that caveat out of the way, let me explain why I laughed so many times during this wild movie. First, it is just so, so Scandinavian. There’s an undeniable sense of stoic pragmatism—combined with the all-pervasive existential ennui saturating every frame—that could never be mistaken for an American perspective, and not just because they’re all speaking Swedish for the most part. There’s three years that pass in the time span of the narrative before MR works up the nerve to say anything to the woman, Isagel, she’s been exchanging sideways glances with from the moment she set foot on board the Aniara. That’s about two years, 11 months, and three weeks longer than such a plot point would last in a Hollywood film. For god’s sake, this is a film where a machine kills itself from depression. Let’s see Bumblebee 2 pull that shit.

But also, there’s some unavoidable comedy from a film that pulls so many time jumps, in such an abrupt manner. The first jump—three weeks—made sense, as we’re still establishing the universe of the ship, and the society contained within it. Once MR speaks to the astronomer and learns the ship might not actually have a way to get back on course, she goes to the pilot, Chefone, who confirms this—while refusing to pause his extreme exercise regimen. Surely he could stop doing a handstand long enough to discuss the fate of the entire human population of his ship, including himself? Not a chance. Cut to three years later! And the best part is, future adrift human society seems to be making the best of it by... fusing EDM raves with some kind of country line-dancing routine.

Such jumps are nearly always jarring, sparking some unintentional laughter, even when they make sense narratively, as the jumps to years four and six do. (The jump to year five, hilariously, comes at the apex of a mass orgy scene.) And they get increasingly dark, story-wise, which counterintuitively adds to their oddball gallows humor appeal. There’s one time jump that escapes the sense of awkward laughter, which is the one immediately following MR discovering the body of Isagel and their child, the former killing both herself and the latter. It’s a horrifically bleak moment that renders any humor temporarily impossible, in large part because it feels like there’s no way the narrative—or MR—can recover any sense of hope.

And that feeling is correct. When it jumps ahead to year 10, with Chefone presenting MR with an award for the creation of giant digital screens that replace the endless void of space with comforting scenes of waterfalls, forests, etc., we see (via his poorly concealed bandage) that even the pilot has attempted suicide. Still, the jump to “Year 5,981,407” can’t help but be a little funny, even after all hope is lost, and we’re just waiting to see how it all ends—other than “badly.”

Year four is when things really start to get weird for this isolated community of humans trying to maintain some sense of normalcy in a hopeless situation. Cults begin to form, praying to the light of distant stars, and MR and Isagel are released from jail to help out with the jobs there are no longer enough people to perform (too many suicides), and they soon discover things are going to shit. Here’s a particularly unsettling moment, apropos of nothing connected to anything else in the narrative, showing just one of the disturbing changes that has taken place among the human society and its fracturing subsocieties.

These stranger elements actually end shortly thereafter, when Isagel discovers the probe approaching the Aniara, and everyone rallies in hopes of recovering fuel the ship can use to get back on track. It doesn’t work, of course, because the theme of this movie is that everything is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, and that there’s not really much difference between humanity on Earth and humanity in a giant spaceship cruising into the unknown; we’re all just trying to make life as best we can. (The key difference, the film suggests, is that we’ve got nature to connect with here on our little planet, and it keeps us sane.) It’s a severe, stark, and pessimistic film, devoid of much hope or anything resembling warmth, save for the fleeting joy of MR’s family that gets cruelly taken away soon enough. I’m really not selling how much I enjoyed watching it.

Still, there’s one scene that stands out as the most go-for-broke out-there, humanity-has-lost-it’s-damn-mind, let’s-go-wild sequence in the entire film. This would be the Mima-worshipping orgy cult, led by the woman who first made up the story about MR sabotaging Mima that got our hero thrown in prison in the first place. They stand in the destroyed Mima hall, naked, holding mirrors while a nude man is brought in to mount this head woman, then another, and another, until each member of the cult starts making out, one things leads to another (you know how it is at these sex cult parties!), and, well, see for yourself. Needless to say, this is extremely NSFW:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: The more I think about it, the more I think it may have a shot. This thing is tailor-made for midnight screenings at liberal arts colleges, where stoned sophomores can ruminate on the fundamental absence of a teleology to existence, save for the illusory nature of those that govern our collective myths, histories, and imaginary instantiations of society. Good times.

Damnable commentary track or special feature? All the behind-the-scenes featurettes are focused on the technical aspects of the film: visual effects, production design, sound design, and an art gallery depicting the conceptual design of the Aniara. They’re interesting enough, but no substitute for the feature I want to see, which is footage of each actor’s response when they first turned to the last page of the script and saw “Year 5,981,407.”