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Thread: ANIARA (Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja 2018)

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    Jul 2002
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    ANIARA (Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja 2018)



    Lost in space again, this time with Swedes

    Adapted from a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson that's reportedly assigned to Swedish schoolchildren, this unusual sci-fi film is so drenched in gloom it could only come from the land of Ingmar Bergman, though Tarkovsky might have done a better job of translating its cosmic desperation to the screen. Visually and stylistically it's impressive, and makes skillful use of a combination of CGI and readymade sets culled from modernistic commercial spaces. If you're a sci-fi fan looking for something different, this may be just the thing.On the other hand, a somnolent pace and a lack of relatable characters or incidents developed in depth may prove off-putting, not to mention the pervasive depression.

    As the film begins stock disaster footage over the opening credits points to a trashed Earth. And certainly this is a storyline that is relatable to us today. We seem to be destroying the planet, though it may take a long time, both to reach the point when Earth is uninhabitable, and to have developed the technology and science to move elsewhere. In this film, those points have been reached, and the action immediately focuses on a giant space ship speeding hundreds, maybe thousands, to the planet Mars, to take up residence there.

    We're immediately plunged into the life of Aniara, the space ship. Rather strangely (though explicably given the epic poem source and the nationality of the filmmakers), everybody on this vast vessel speaks nothing but Swedish. Who knows? This is the remote future, though except for some people having facial scars, everybody looks and acts like we do now. The focus is on a woman called Minaroben, or MR for short (Emelie Jonsson). She operates a giant space called the Mima, designed to alleviate spacial anomie. People lie on the floor and the Mima AI reads their memories and fills their minds with pleasant images of Earth landscapes that calm them down, sort of like the last minutes of a yoga class. They put their heads on white foam circle-pillows and resting thus, float into Never-Never-Land. MR bunks with a lady astronomer of sarcastic bent (veteran Swedish actress Anneli Martini), whose dim view of everything tips the film toward gloom early on and eventually gets her into dire trouble.

    The trip is meant to take less than a month, but suddenly there is a big bump. Chefone (Arvin Kananian), the Captain, a uniformed, bearded fellow with a Middle Eastern look, declares that they have been derailed by floating debris, and to survive it was necessary to jettison all the fuel, which means they're stuck out in space. Their only hope is to wait to encounter another body with sufficient gravitational force to harness. Before long the Astronomer tells MR that this is bosh.

    The film is divided into segments by years from here on, 1,2,3,5,6,10, 24, then 500,000+, and focuses on different moods or preoccupations of the passengers, those we see, anyway. Apart from the Captain, the Astronomer, MR, and Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), who becomes MR's love partner, and with whom MR raises a baby, this isn't like a normal dramatic movie like the "Aliens" series, that has a set of distinctive characters: the film's generally weak grasp of the actual and inability to sketch in a whole society or even a set of vivid main characters convincingly is its greatest weakness as entertainment. Sigourney Weaver would have come in handy.

    With the new situation, the Mima becomes much more popular, in fact so overloaded that its AI starts becoming mired in the participants' bad memories instead of their good ones, and is so overburdened it (she?) commits robotic suicide. Much later, MR will devise a system of projecting beautiful large images of Earth, which becomes her legacy.

    In other segments we see passengers start to engage in orgiastic cults. Meanwhile, the food supply is out and everybody is put on a disagreeable diet of algae - though we don't really see this. Another missed opportunity is the lack of a sense of daily life on board.

    Things get slowly and steadily worse. However, MR and Isagel live together now in a posh suite raising their baby, and have at least a period of sensual pleasure and domestic bliss. Changing diapers in space is another physical detail that's omitted, though. MR has a guilty interlude of sex with a man, and dancing with an attractive young man. There is however general chaos when what the Captain says is a probe sent to provide them with fuel for a return, turns out, as of course the Astronomer knew, to be nothing of the kind.

    A lot of time is spent on the relationship of MR and Isagel, which takes a desperate turn due to the general hopelessness of the situation. The Captain is revealed to be manipulative and a liar and yet, decades along, he's still in charge. We get that being trapped indefinitely out in space is a situation filled with limitless existential dread, but it seems like a more conventional and vivid treatment of everyday details would have made the action much more effective. There is an emphasis on the pointless consumerism of the passengers, or at least people say this is a theme; it was not so evident to me.

    And so the film plods drearily along. The space ship is declared by the Astronomer to be a giant "sarcophagus," which eventually perhaps it is. Suicide becomes a major occupation. MR remains heroic in her courage and will to survive.

    Aniara is a missed opportunity, or so one gathers from the comments of some who read the original poem in school and were deeply moved by it. Given the fame of the source, one can reasonably guess this isn't a successful adaptation, even without having read it. Though Claire Denis' very related entry into the sci-fi genre High Life (which incidentally showed with Aniara at Toronto) didn't grab me as it did so many others, it blows away the Swedish film in its economy, vividness, freshness, and intimacy. Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are a young, debuting directorial duo, and maybe their next film will be better.

    Aniara, 106 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2018, also playing in five other international festivals, including Göteborg and San Francisco in Jan. and Apr. 2019. Ir opens in US theaters 17 May 2019.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-02-2019 at 01:23 AM.


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