If you can’t get enough of the “spaceship as shopping mall” genre, there’s a new entry out of Sweden, ANIARA, which had its world premiere today at the Toronto International Film Festival. This has proven to be a decidedly weird subgenre — in WALL-E fat cruise passengers are coaxed out of their scooter-and-slushie torpor by a cute robot, as if to say that a good argument from a charismatic metal cube is all it takes to overcome millions of years of genetic programming. While in Passengers we learn that space malls are lonely unless you stalk a woman and wake her up from hypersleep against her will, condemning her to premature death. ANIARA, on the other hand, eschews the inherently contradictory commercialism necessitated by a Pixar or Jennifer Lawrence vehicle and instead takes the cruise ship as a symbol of overconsumption to its darkly logical conclusion.
The story is based on an epic poem written by Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson in 1956. More broadly, it is one of the founding works of the “generation starship” subgenre of science fiction (see, e.g. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky), of which I’m generally a fan. ANIARA the film also goes all in on the intellectual angle, which normally would push all my buttons. The film adaptation by directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lija succeed at being cerebral and thought-provoking, though it is so airless and devoid of life that it fails to capture the imagination. Imagine if WALL-E was directed by Tarkovsky, and the titular robot had killed himself in the first 20 minutes from existential dread. Then the humans tried to fill the emptiness with cults and orgies. But really boring ones. You’re getting closer, but still nowhere near to imagining ANIARA, because it is batshit crazy. More on that later.
The setup is that the Earth is now uninhabitable, so massive cruise liners outfitted like shopping malls are ferrying humanity to Mars. The trip is only supposed to take three weeks, though the ANIARA encounters some space debris along the way, forcing it to change direction to try to avoid it. This fails, and the debris disables the nuclear reactor, causing the ship to drift off course for years. Because it can grow algae for food, it seems their cruise ship in the sky can sustain them for many years or perhaps decades if need be. The passengers may never get to their destination and forced to make new lives with each other.
“…massive cruise liners outfitted like shopping malls are ferrying humanity to Mars.”
The protagonist, known simply as MR (Emelie Jonsson), is the steward of an artificial intelligence that can project soothing images into people’s brains, rendering them temporarily catatonic. After processing the extended despair of the humans relentlessly, the AI starts to become depressed itself, and goes a bit haywire. I won’t spoil what happens, but this isn’t your typical HAL psychosis. It is a spectacular concept, though sadly underexploited. Much of the film focuses on MR’s attempts to connect with some of the humans on board, and the machinations of the crew, who aren’t always honest about the state of the ship and any potential rescue operation.
A cold dreariness as pervasive as a Swedish midwinter hangs over ANIARA. The tone serves the plot well, as it underscores the plight of the passengers, though the side-effect is that it drains the film of any kind of spark. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that there are no great characters to latch on to. The film is so burdened by a structure that characters only seem to exist to do functional duties in furtherance of the plot. To top it off, the cast simply has no charisma.
Another major problem is the premise of the film. Why would you build a massive self-sustaining luxury liner the size of a city when the purpose is a three week trip to Mars? You have to leave Earth orbit, accelerate to incredible speeds, then decelerate into Mars orbit. Since force is equal to mass times acceleration, the greater mass you have the greater force it takes. Having a massive ship for this journey would never be possible, not to mention logical, no matter your level of technology. I know the metaphor is one of a cruise ship, but in the boat, case weight doesn’t matter, because you’re floating. In a spaceship, mass is everything.
“…a great concept, a coherent tone, an uncompromising vision, and the ballsiest ending…”
Second, once a ship that massive is on a straight course, you can’t just turn it 90 degrees —you’d need a good fraction of the amount of fuel that it took to launch it. To avoid space debris you’d just give your ship a little thrust to get around it. And every space vessel has multiple backups and contingency plans, though here the most predictable of failure modes dooms everyone in an instant. And they don’t seem capable of communicating with Earth or Mars for some reason that is left unexplained. I get it – the writers needed a way to just isolate everyone, but then when the solutions they came up with are laughable, it undercuts the seriousness of the whole project. Would you go see a movie about a financial disaster if it were written with a kindergartener’s sense of economics? Why should it be any different with space movies?
Finally, a big plot development (that I won’t spoil), happens partway through the film, but it seems to happen totally by chance. Astrophysically speaking, the chances of this happening are zero. This implies that it didn’t happen by chance, but the smartest character (an astrophysicist who is marginalized at every turn) says that it was indeed dumb luck. Such is the fate of ANIARA, where brilliant ideas are subverted within seconds by abject stupidity.
This is a cathedral built on quicksand. It is ornate and beautiful, but the lack of a foundation dooms it to failure. It just reeks of a hyper-artsy vision of how to make art using scientific concepts as metaphors, though without understanding them fully.
ANIARA has plenty going for it — a great concept, a coherent tone, an uncompromising vision, and an ending that’s the ballsiest thing I’ve seen since AI. Sadly these virtues are undercut by some unforgivable sins — it is boring, has underdeveloped characters, and has a childlike understanding of the scientific concepts supposedly undergirding the plot. One of those could be forgivable, but all together they spell doom.
ANIARA (2018) Written and directed by Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja. Starring Emelie Jonsson, Arvin Kananian, Bianca Cruzeiro, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Peter Carlberg, Emma Broomé. ANIARA screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 San Francisco Film Festival.
4 stars out of 10