Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem “Aniara” is a sweeping epic. Across 103 cantos, it details the tragic fate of the Aniara, a ship filled with human colonists bound for Mars that is irrevocably pulled off course. Adrift in the cosmos, the ship is described by Martinson as a manifestation of human existential crisis in the face of the abyss: “The monumental foolishness of living is thus made obvious to one and all / who’d spent years hunting for one crevice giving / access for a gleam of hope to fall.”
“Aniara,” the latest release from directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, is an ambitious project in interpreting this behemoth work on film that ultimately loses sight of the poem’s intricacies and artistic vision along the way of adaptation. Its fragmented vision of the Aniara and its doomed fate makes for a shallow attempt at high-concept sci-fi that is out of its depth when tackling the source material’s commentary on the human condition. It also fails in adding anything new to the story in its adaptation, making for a film that’s flat overall.
Beginning at the moment of the Aniara’s involuntary departure from its set course, the film focuses on Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), an employee on the ship. Though somehow involved in every aspect of life on the Aniara, she mainly serves as a steward for the Mima, a semi-sentient robotic being that puts humans in trances to experience images of what Earth used to be. Over the course of the Aniara’s journey, Mimaroben becomes the ship’s naive martyr as both the politics and collective mental state of the passengers continue to devolve with each successive year in space.
As the main narrative conduit of the film, Mimaroben is a heroine of little depth beyond an inexplicable optimism that Everything Will Be All Right. Like everyone else on the ship, she is given no back story, leaving her motivations and actions throughout the film often inexplicable. This vagueness might work for a more removed character, but she is essentially the only person given much screen time. Even at the end of the film, it’s unclear why she remains sane and stable as everyone around her spirals. Jonsson doesn’t bring much to her performance besides a mechanical spunkiness and tendency for overacting. The saying goes, “In space no one can hear you scream,” but there’s been a lot of yelling into the void by the time more than a decade has passed inside the Aniara.
The film checks in every few years to gauge the state of the ship and the passengers. As the ship drifts farther and farther into space, the hopeful prospect of turning around becomes more unlikely. The passengers drift into varying states of madness, acceptance or an uneasy balance of both. The jumps in time often come across as disjointed instead of revealing, leaving significant plot gaps in between the years.
Mimaroben remains the main perspective on the Aniara amid a few attempts to build any other interesting characters along the way. There’s the demanding ship captain, the buttoned-up love interest, the boozy roommate and a smattering of other side characters whose purpose and motivations are never truly explored. Similarly, various subplots unfolding among the ship’s various levels fade in and out of the film with little development overall. An orgy-based cult dedicated to Mima gets one scene and is never mentioned again. A probe containing fuel is located and acquired, but it never comes up after a brief discussion regarding its potential to correct the ship’s trajectory. These teases at drama get lost in the mix of fleeting plotlines.
The film is at its most promising in its depiction of the first few years of the ship’s journey. As the passengers cope with the immediate existential crisis brought on by their drift into oblivion, they also begin to construct a sustainable life for themselves on their drifting cosmic island. This world-building is fun to watch and is often portrayed in fairly realistic ways, creating a vision of a ship and a life that could reasonably work out.
Where “Aniara” the poem works in weaving in and out of gloomy existential crisis and a surreal portrayal of the ship’s journey through the cosmos, the film version misses every attempt to capture the beautiful and haunting nature of the tale. In the end, “Aniara” is as adrift as the ship itself, making its way toward a cinematic vision it just can’t reach.
Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].