In a form of intellectual segregation that should be familiar to Americans, Aniara watchers will be divided into exactly one of two camps: those who think that this bleak and mournful contemplation of life is nigh-perfect and those who are furious about having been tricked into watching a Swedish space orgy.
An adaptation of a 1956 science-fiction poem, Aniara exudes lyricism, playing footsie with the biggest of life’s questions while anchored to a surprisingly lean and linear narrative. Although a few thousand light years from optimistic, any film that challenges you to evaluate what constitutes a meaningful existence is the very best kind of art.
Writers/directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja waste no time, buckling audiences in mid-ascent from earth to the Aniara, a sort of luxury cruise liner that ferries humans from a dying planet to the newly colonized Mars. In a wink at Gilligan, a three-week trip becomes something else entirely when the ship is forced to eject their fuel after being struck by space debris.
The story is largely told through the eyes of the Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), a woman whose job is to help folks from going space bonkers using a weird memory generator that’s part Hal from 2001 and part holodeck from Star Trek. She falls in love, endures unthinkable tragedy and participates in face-painted cult worship, all while the ship’s captain (Arvin Kananian) lies to his passengers about their fate.
Like a space disaster movie directed by Terrence Malick, Aniara is everything that everyone falsely claims Claire Denis’s High Life is. Without pushing or prodding, the film gently asks you to imagine the things you need to live, not just survive. Hope is flickered about like a laser pointer toying with a cat, and religious questions are probed not through didactic finger wagging but through sorrowful examples. The mastery it takes to create something that is sparse and quiet without summoning boredom like Cthulu is underappreciated.
Unlike a lot of the ugly nihilism that passes as reflection on “the way things are,” Aniara is unflinching but also deliberately kind. Our heroine certainly undergoes brutal emotional trauma, but Kagerman and Lilja don’t smear it about like other lauded auteurs very recently have. The film also punctuates its deliberate pace with several absolutely exhausting, exhilarating moments that would be minor plot clutter in worse versions.
This particular brand of science-fiction that leverages “what if” to pry open the philosophical trap doors of the mind is uniquely special. Like a Band-Aid on the loss of Ursula Le Guin, Aniara is an experience that will stick with everyone who sees it. Half of those people will be glad it did. Between this and Midsommar, multiple candidates for the best film of the year feature naked Swedish people chanting and humming while a couple copulates in front of them. For whatever reason, that feels like what 2019 deserves.
Grade = A+