TIFF 2018: ANIARA Needs More Time To Tell Its Story

This existential sci-fi film from Sweden has a compelling story, but it doesn’t work in under two hours.

A suicidal AI, an astronomer and a sex cult inside a shopping mall in space. It’s a joke with no punchline, just a look into the void of existentialism and consumerism. This feature debut from Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja is ambitious, even if its story of space refugees trying to find a new home will feel familiar to fans of anything from WALL-E, to Interstellar, to even Battlestar Galactica.

Based on a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson, we travel forward in time. After an unseen catastrophe that left Earth scorched, humanity has started to board commercial space ferries and look to Mars for a new home. We follow a group of passengers who, after getting on a literal space elevator, board the ship Aniara. Like WALL-E, the titular ship is more like a commercial plane or ferry, designed to meet the needs of a species obsessed with consumerism, who literally just consumed their home planet. They have pools, night clubs, entertainment centers for the kids, a Hyatt hotel – and one giant shopping mall.

The first 20 minutes of the film are a marvel to look at. An exercise in world building and social commentary, the world of Aniara has reached a point where civilians are as annoyed at zero gravity as we are at turbulence. We don’t get an answer to what exactly happened on Earth, but we know it is uninhabitable, an several background characters have physical deformities – disfiguring skin scores, lack of noses, basically Fallout characters. We also meet the idea of the Mima, a sentient computer that uses the memories of human visitors to create a dream-like virtual reality experience of Earth before the devastation.

Just before the ship’s three-week voyage is over, it is knocked off course and heads out of the solar system after having to jettison all the fuel to avoid an explosion. This makes turning around towards Mars impossible, and the only course of action is waiting to use the gravitational force of a nearby planet to turn around. From here on out, the film is divided into chapters, telling the story of the passengers and crew on board the Aniara as they cope with their conundrum. Each chapter jumps forward in time, and we see the decadence in morality and the rise of despair.

The ship’s first casualty is the Mima, which starts getting overworked once people realize their situation and start seeking for any kind of escapist experience. Out main character inside the marooned ship is MR (Emelie Jonsson), an astronomer working with Mima, who notices that the constant stream of horrific memories of humans is taking a toll on Mima, and corrupting it. From there on out, we see how the rest of the humans on board the Aniara start losing all hope and resort to desperation, panic, and eventually suicide or sex cults.

The structure of the chapters loses its novelty quickly. Because the film jumps around from character to character and also forward in time, we don’t really get to know anyone on board. These are not characters, but cameos without substance, and you can’t help but wonder if the format was better suited for a TV show than a movie. Each chapter has its own three-arc structure that follows the kind of story fans of Lost or Battlestar Galactica are used to, the crew having to fix the water purification tank, the idea of false hope versus causing panic, the orgies started by the sex cult. The world building is there, and the story is interesting, but because of the runtime, we don’t really get to know or care about the people suffering on board the Aniara.

That being said, the production design is impressive, we get to know the interior of the massive ship even though we are mostly confined to small spaces inside the mall. The CGI is used sparingly, mostly to create the titular ship, and it works in making you feel it is all real. Despite the narrative problems, the story itself is filled with surprises, and the themes of relying on consumerism and escapism to distract ourselves from the meaninglessness of existence make Aniara an ambitiously entertaining, if somewhat disappointing, sci-fi drama.