'Aniara' Movie Director: "This Is What the Apocalypse Looks Like"
How the film adaptation of Harry Martinson's 1956 poem foretells our bleak future in 2019.
In 1956, Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson wrote and published his science fiction poem Aniara which tells the story of colonists, leaving a ravaged Earth, who feel despair as their spacecraft is stranded on the way to Mars. Over 60 years later, Martinson’s story is just as resonant, as co-director Pella Kågerman frames the urgent issue of climate change as the reason humans feel bound for the stars — and die trying to escape.
In theaters on May 17, Aniara, co-written and directed by Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, follows travelers aboard the massive “Aniara,” a spaceship embarking on a three-week voyage to Mars when it’s knocked off course. The Aniara drifts in space for years, its passengers losing both their and their hope for survival.
In a change from Martinson’s original poem, Kågerman tells the story from the perspective of Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), a custodian at an “A.I. spa” that lets people see and experience a green Earth before it fell to ruins.
Kågerman tells Inverse that she “wanted to explore what it means to be human without Earth.”
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“It’s a thought experiment really,” she says via email, “because so far no one has experienced this. Every human ever born, was born here on Earth. I find that quite breathtaking! I can’t grasp the vastness of space! How completely unique Earth is, or at least how enormous the distances to a planet similar to Earth is, at least in our measurements.”
Kågerman begins Aniara with climate change as the reason space travel became an everyday reality, but that’s not to say our planet burning up is what will get us to space. Rather, it’s telling of Kågerman’s generally pessimistic view of humanity, people prone to breaking everything no matter where in the cosmos we find ourselves.
“I believe that this is actually what the Apocalypse looks like,” she says, “We are risking Earth to become uninhabitable for us and lots of other species. But I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this is also kind of news to me. When we started making the film, I had no idea how bad it actually was.”
Kågerman’s relationship to Martinson’s Aniara can be traced to her childhood. Her grandmother gave her copies of the poem and took her to see productions of the Aniara opera. “The day after she got a stroke and ended up in the hospital,” Kågerman recalls, “and I was by her side reading the poem.”
As Kågerman’s grandmother slowly got better, the two got lost in their imaginations, pretending the hospital was the Aniara spaceship. The doctors were the crew, the patients were the passengers. “And she pretended she was the artificial intelligence,” Kågerman says.
Decades later, Kågerman obtained permission to adapt Martinson’s poem thanks to the blessings of the poet’s daughters, Harriet and Eva. “They were very open-minded and excited about the film,” she says. “Their only concern was for us to stay true to the ending of the poem, which we also did.”
“We’re already on board the Aniara in one way,” adds Kågerman. The director feels that whether it’s Earth or the Aniara, humans will inevtiably treat their environment in the same, destructive way.
“But that doesn’t stop us from trying to do the best we can out of our lives and it’s the same with the time left on Earth,” she adds. “I think some people need to understand how bad it actually is, while others need to get some optimism back so we can continue fighting. I don’t think we should abandon this ship!”
Aniara hits theaters on May 17.