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.