There are countless modern movies about being trapped in space on a long voyage. These movies use their setting to explore how humanity needs to find a sense of exploration (2008’s Wall-E), how to overcome adversity (2013’s Gravity) how love is all you need (2016’s Passengers), and how misinformation can hurt society (Armando Iannuci’s 2020 TV show Avenue 5). But there’s one story on the same topic that precedes all of them.
In 1974, Swedish writer Harry Martinson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. While his award was controversial because he was a member of the voting committee for the prize that he won, the committee cited his “most famous work, the Aniara poetry collection from 1956,” as a reason for winning and describing it as “about a space ship that leaves Earth after a devastating nuclear war, but then goes off course.”
Aniara the poem is sci-fi at its most abstract, looking at the isolation of humanity through 109 cantos. Aniara the movie, a 2018 Swedish movie co-directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, fashions the poem into a wide-ranging story, using its trapped denizens to explore the many varieties of the human condition with a focus on how the continued isolation and despair of society affects one person in particular.
She’s known only by her job, which makes her the Mimaroben, or MR. Played by Emelie Jonsson, her title sounds cooler than her actual job.
Before the Aniara gets knocked off course, its trip to Mars feels like a cross between a cruise ship through space. Much of the movie was shot in various Swedish malls. There’s shopping, twenty-one restaurants, all the oxygen you need thanks to algae. And then, there’s the Mima. In the movie, Mima is a cross between an airport massage business and mass hypnosis. With the Mimaroben as its guide, the machine is able to bring people to the calmest settings of their memory as they lie face down in a squishy circle.
Mima is not a popular attraction, and the Mimaroben is not exactly a great salesperson. But that changes once the ship is knocked off course. Told by the ship’s Captain Chefone (played by Arvin Kananian, who is continually exercising) that the journey will only take two years, passengers start to line up for their turns on the Mima, sometimes barging into sessions.
The Mima offers up a perfect fantasy world where its inhabitants can ignore the stresses of their loves, but Aniara is not concerned with perfection. Overwhelmed by the passengers' negative memories, the movie moves away from the machine itself and focuses on how people start to act when it’s no longer available and they start having to face their reality.
The movie brings the poem’s canto structure into play by framing itself as a series of chapters, each one further into the trip. Some of these breaks are days, others are years. There are mini-stories in each:
- The Mimaroben’s roommate, a grumpy Astronomer wonderfully played by Anneli Martini, starts to question the narrative of survival given by Captain Chefone.
- The ship finds a nearby object which could lead to their rescue.
- The Mimaroben and her lover/girlfriend Isagel, played by Bianca Cruzeiro, explore a sexy fertility cult.
A small film that feels very big through both its many extras and wonderful use of bright and bold color, Aniara explores what it’s like to form a relationship while knowing the destiny of your entire life is to stay right where you are. It explores how different personalities bend and crack under permeating dread.
“We’re already on board the Aniara in one way,” Kågerman told Inverse when the movie first came out.
At times, all that bending and cracking left me a little confused. Characters are given their space to comprehend events silently, which works given the talent of the cast but can make figuring out what they’re comprehending shaky at times. There’s also no exploration of the whys and hows of a ship getting irreparably lost on a trip between the Earth and Mars without even an attempt at a rescue.
Aniara is far more focused on personal matters. Kågerman told Inverse that she first encountered Martinson’s poem at the bedside of her sick grandmother in the hospital. Together, they read the poem and imagined themselves on the ship. It’s hard to imagine wanting to spend time on a ship like the one in this movie, but Aniara suggests that we might already be there.
Aniara is streaming now on Hulu in the U.S.