Aniara – A secret sci-fi masterpiece you must watch

Aniara is a great movie. It’s my kind of sci-fi. Simple, minimalist and melancholy.

Aniara poster

Yes, there are special effect shots, but they’re not there for the sake of being there. The special effects are there to serve the story. It is a film about people in extraordinary circumstances. It may be set out there amongst the stars but it is about us. those people.

We have no need for other worlds, we need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”

― Stanisław Lem, Solaris

The above quote sums up what I love about sci-fi. On one level, yes, we love the escapism it provides, but it’s window dressing. The genre uses rockets and ray guns to lure you in. Sci-fi is a hall of mirrors.

Spoiler-free Aniara recommendation

Aniara is a funhouse mirror, a grim reflection of what happens to those without hope.

I am going to be as vague as possible in this opening section. Aniara is one of those films where you should not know too much going in.

The film is based on a sci-fi poem that was written by Harry Martinson.

The basic plot of Aniara is as follows; passengers board the Aniara to flee a ruined Earth. Their destination is Mars, in the hope of starting a new life. After a near collision with space debris they are sent off course without fuel. A three-week journey becomes years as the ship looks to get back on track.

This is my recommendation. Track down the film. It can be rented from:

  • Youtube,
  • Amazon
  • or you can watch it as part of your free trial with BFI Player.

What follows will be spoilers.

This is your last chance.

Still here?

Then let’s get back on track shall we?

How come I like Aniara so much?

How come I like this film so much? Well I’ve though about it so let me tell you.

First of all, what can Aniara be compared to? It feels like it owes to sci-fi cinema of the seventies like Solaris and Silent Running. With interspersed white on black title cards to convey time jumps, feels like The Shining. There’s also a bit of a nod to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. In Sunshine, people looked into the sun then went mad. In Aniara, people gaze into the black void of space before having panic attacks. The setting even evokes the later half of Wall-e. Those are the movies it reminded me of while watching.

At the same time Aniara remains unique. There are elements of a procedural to it too. What do I mean by procedural? As in the characters work through their options. There’s is some inter-personal conflict but it’s not the main source conflilct for the heroine, the situation is the main antagonist. Everyone pulls together and gets on with the job.

The moral question at the heart of Aniara is excellent too. Do humans need the truth or false hope?

Let’s go a bit more in depth about the good.

Aniara -The good

Lack of narration

What I loved about Aniara was the lack of narration. There’s no voice-over explaining how people feel or what’s happening. There’s a distinct lack of exposition: a movie lovers dream. Heck, there’s not even an opening text. Even my favourite sci-fi films, Blade Runner and The Terminator have opening text. Ariana has no text. You have to work out aspects of the world and story for yourself.

An example of this is some characters have badly burned skin. There’s never any reference to this. You’re able to work out in your head; these people lived somewhere there was no Ozone protection. I love that Aniara respects us enough to not explain every little detail.

Avoids Cliche

In the first section of the film there is a mood altering AI called MIMA. When the ship goes off course more and more people pile in to use the services. The MIMA becomes overworked and absorbs all the negative thoughts and feelings. It becomes so overworked that it projects the negative thoughts back into people. It then kills itself. This was great, there was no rogue AI trying to kill people.

The film strips back at cliche. It is like the machinations of the story are there to remove all potential obstacles. This is so that the people on board the Aniara have no choice but to confront the vast empty void they’re hurtling through.

Morally ambiguous

Aniara remains ambiguous about answering the moral question it poses. It felt like the question was; is it better to lie to people to give them a sense of purpose or tell them the bitter cold truth?

Aniara touches on the idea that humans need something to believe in. Even if the something is not true. What I like is that Aniara, the movie, never comes down on one side. Instead, it raises the question and lets you work it out with yourself.

Fantastic performance from Emile Garbers

The lead actress, Emile Garbers, is fantastic. Her character, MR (short for Mimaroba, which seems like her job than her name), goes through the wringer several times and still is able to smile.

Is MR up there with Ellen Ripley?

You know what, she is. She tries to maintain hope and build up the morale of those around her. Throughout the story, she faces many setbacks, but she remains optimistic. She wants to improve the quality of life for those around her. The crew wrongfully imprison her at one point. She doesn’t hold a grudge once she is released. MR adapts to the new role imposed on her. She is clearly going through her own issues, but she does not let that stop her mission, even by putting on the light show for people to boost morale, doing it of her own accord. MR is a selfless heroine and a great sci-fi character.

Great work from Arvin Kananian too

Shout out to Arvin Kananian as the captain. What they do with him is so subtle that I might be reading too much into this. Almost every time we see the captain interact with MR he is working out. It’s like he is working out as a coping mechanism, then when the ship hits some kind of turbulence he breaks his arm. Once his arm is broken, the habit of working out is broken and he does not take it up again, then the last time we see him his wrists are all bandaged. Understand me when I say that this is fantastic storytelling.

Bleak

I like how bleak Aniara gets in places; the film is not here to lift you up. The word Aniara comes from Greek meaning of despair. Tells you all you need to know

There’s no moralising either. More people are commit suicide as they give up hope. The survivors only care how it’s going to affect their workflow. They’re not even sad, they’re more worried about how they’re short of workers. It presents a grim subject matter in a matter of fact manner.

Metaphor done right

There are certain films I go hard on; The Red Turtle, The Fountain and Mother! The reason I think these are bad films is that they make the metaphor too obvious. In fact, these films are just extended metaphors. What’s wrong with that I hear you ask from the other side of the screen?

Here’s the thing.

Every film, every story, in essence, is a metaphor. When your film is just a metaphor, it closes down avenues of interpretation. It won’t last in your head, and you won’t feel any desire to return to the story again you’ve got everything you need from the story. Here’s the thing with metaphor in movies; make it too vague and the point sales over the audience’s head. Make it too obvious, and the audience disengage emotionally.

Aniara walked the line perfectly.

The metaphor was subtle yet present throughout. It was there and clear enough that you could explore it for yourself. You think to yourself, gosh, I’d hate to be stuck in the one place, hurtling through space. Everyone you know and love dies and in the end everything is pointless. Then you think, wait a minute, that’s life on Earth.

Ariana does well to ease you into the hot bath of existential dread instead of trying to drown you with it’s messaging.

Pacing

The film is well-paced. Like the ship itself, it barrels along, never getting bogged down. What I mean by that is that it never feels like it dwells too long on one particular scene. Aniara really picks up speed towards the end. With segments getting shorter and the jumps in time more considerable as the movie nears the end. Usually, I prefer a more linear, compact structure. However, the structure and pacing suited the movie fantastic.

In fact the pacing and metaphor were working so well in concert it got me thinking. When you’re young the passage of time is slow but as you get older it speeds up. Is the reason film editing speeds up towards the end because that is what life is like?

Real-world locations

Another strength is that Aniara feels more real through how it uses actual hotels and malls to stand in for the ship’s interior. Rather than building fantastic sets, everything looks kind of boring. The benefit of this is the story feels more relatable. If you’ve ever been on a long boat journey, or delayed at an airport you’ll feel this film.

Eco parable?

As part of this post’s research, I read a few reviews that have said there’s a global warming message. I didn’t get that. True, in Aniara, Earth has been devastated, but the ship’s people are not refugees. They seem like middle-class types away on vacation or a business trip. It seems like Earth being abandoned is just a pretence for the movie to happen. To get a bunch of strangers on a big ship. If warning about the dangers of global warming was supposed to be a takeaway from this, then I wasn’t getting it. What’s good about this is that if you want to see the message, you can. If not, you can ignore it.

The quibbles

In the interest of not hyping this movie up too much here are the quibbles. They’re minor.

The probe

In the latter half of the film, the ship encounters a probe. The probe is of unknown origin. People think they’re going to be able to get fuel from the probe. They can’t get into the porbe, hopes are dashed. The point of the probe is to provide more false hope for those on the ship. A friend said the probe was distracting, he has a point.

Was the probe alien? Was it sent from Earth or Mars? They could have explained it away in a line of dialogue. I didn’t mind the probe. It was clear it was to act as another let down for the passengers. At the same time, I can see how it is too intriguing to be introduced late in the game. I understand not explaining things is in keeping with the idea of meaninglessness. At the same time they could have maybe resolved the probes origin a bit better.

The cult thing seems to just kind of stop

I was curious about what happened after. Did people wise up? Was the religion still ongoing, or was it a phase? Again, a minor point, and I am glad they didn’t dwell on the cult sections too long.

It seems like my main gripe with the film is all the chapters are segregated with no overlap. It’s fine. But when there is such good attention to detail in other areas, it makes you wonder why it was not extended to this part.

Conclusion: Go watch Aniara

This film intrigues you on some level. Especially if you’ve read this far.

Go and check out Aniara.

It only made $40k when it was released. This means that it’s criminally unseen.

I know that depressing films may not be what we need right now. There’s something liberating about acknowledging the pointlessness of life. When you understand life is meaningless, something extraordinary happens. You decide where you put your purpose. If you’re going to die anyway do you not want to die doing what you love? Can you think of anything more freeing than that? Aniara will help you take those steps. Watch it now.

***

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Kieran


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