'Aniara' Review: An Unsettling, Slow-Motion Disaster Movie

"We are in a sarcophagus."

Aniara

Humanity’s end feels like a foregone conclusion even as the opening credits roll on the new Swedish film Aniara. They scroll upwards, like traditional end credits, as images of flooding, fires, and other disasters play beneath, and the subconscious message that this is the end is clear. Of course, it’s only the beginning.

The Earth is dying, and people are traveling to Mars for a new chance at life. It’s a routine journey, three weeks in duration, and the ships are decked out like cruise-liners with every possible amenity to make it both memorable and relaxing including shops, restaurants, a gym, and a high-tech relaxation room featuring an AI system named Mima that calms visitors through personal visions and memories. Something goes wrong, though, just hours into the Aniara’s voyage. The ship is knocked off course, communications fail, and a fire-risk forces them to launch their fuel supply into space. Unable to pilot the ship or adjust its trajectory, both passengers and crew find themselves drifting into the void.

Co-directors/writers Pella Kagerman & Hugo Lilja‘s Aniara is a rare film adapted from a poem — in this case Harry Martinson’s 1956 epic — and it succeeds brilliantly in bringing its themes of wonder and despair to a new medium. It’s science-fiction more interested in humanity’s inner struggles than our outward ones, but while you’ll find no real action sequences here the film still hits with a firm and painful punch to the gut. The film is divided into chapters, each signifying a passage of time, and what starts with hours and weeks soon becomes years. It’s every bit a disaster movie, though, despite the time period covered, but rather than attempt to survive the immediate accident the goal is to outlast its echoing effects.

Several beautifully rendered exterior shots work well to capture the vastness of space and our insignificant role within it, but the bulk of the film takes place amid the Aniara’s recreation centers, shopping mall, living quarters, and more. It has all the commercial comforts of home — a home that, while not stated explicitly, may have been driven to destruction in part through humanity’s incessant need for more. They’re so satiated by “things” that few of them use or appreciate the experience offered by Mima and the system’s steward Mr (Emelie Jonsson), but that changes after the accident. Anxiety, fear, and despair infect the population leaving people desperate for something more meaningful. Like an electronic sin-eater of sorts, Mima takes people’s negative emotions and imagery and replaces it with more soothing ones, but the system is soon overrun by human misery.

The ship holds hundreds of people, but Mr is our focus and our guide along the journey. We follow her flirtatious romance with a pilot named Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), her conflict with a captain (Arvin Kananian) struggling to maintain order, and her maneuvering of a passage of time rife with suicides, cult activity, and depression. Jonsson does good work as a flawed human trying to be better for herself and those around her. It’s an uphill battle, though, as the crushing weight of the vacuum of space and the futility of their efforts closes in on them all. The ship is a microcosm of humanity’s time on Earth, and our behavior is no more noble in miniature. Power corrupts, fear warps, and loneliness smothers.

This is no poppy sci-fi adventure, but it’s never dull. Intense drama and raw observations on the species weave together into a vividly compelling tale contrasting our outer ambitions and inner limitations. One character suggests that there were man-made protections on Earth against everything except mankind itself, and it’s a reality that has followed them off the surface into places far more uncertain. The loss of possessions and security sees the rise of religions meant to offer purpose where there is none, but the renewed promise of rescue sees a cynical return to humanity’s norms. The realization that miracle and chance share the same origin is just one of many cold truths in space.

Aniara isn’t technically a horror film, but it’s ultimately as upsetting and oppressive as more traditionally harrowing fare. It’s the near definition of “cosmic horror” as the existential dread and fear of the unknowable fuel a growing sense of hopelessness, and while it avoids the grim degradations often found in more exploitative genre films the mental and emotional anguish are appropriately devastating. We are alone, we are eternally far from home, and the universe will always have the last laugh.

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