Dystopias in Disguise: Aniara


By John Duncan Talbird.

In 1956, Swedish author Harry Martinson wrote an epic poem called Aniara. It tells the story of the eponymous transportation ship which, on the way to Mars, loses control of its steering and hurtles off-course through outer space carrying three thousand people. The author went onto win the Nobel Prize in Literature and his poem has spoken to multiple Swedish artists. It inspired an opera in the 1950s, a heavy metal album by one band and a dance album by another in the 21st century, and now, a film written and directed by first-time feature directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja.

Emelie Jonsson plays the Mimaroben, MR for short. She is part of the crew of Aniara, making the three-week trip back and forth between Earth and Mars, transporting people from the planet humans have ruined in the near future to the colony which will be their salvation. We don’t get to see Earth, but several of the passengers have horribly burned skin and we get the point. Instead, what we see is Aniara, a shopping mall in the sky with restaurants and stores and discos. We get a tour of the transport via a cheesy commercial and it’s somewhat reassuring amidst the dark angsty tone of the film to realize that even in the future the language of advertising won’t have evolved much beyond those infomercials we all get to watch in place of live flight attendant demonstrations every time we fly these days.

MR is in charge of the Mima, part-computer, part-living entity. The Mima is like a glowing computer screen taking up the ceiling of a conference-sized room. The passengers remove their shoes and lie on the floor, face-down in cushions that are a cross between the gap that you place your face in when getting a professional massage and those blue cubes you sit on during yoga classes. Customers are transported, virtual-reality-style, into an experience that is supposed to be “our memory of the Earth” and which seems to involve wading through a pristine creek or floating in an idyllic pond. We get the sense that people aren’t that interested in the Mima though, that they’re too excited about their future home on Mars, that they’re too busy shopping and imbibing to waste time thinking about a world that was. MR is kind of a sad, ineffectual person, a sort of flight attendant in a fully-mechanized vehicle, around for show more than anything approaching utility. She shares a cramped quarters with a cynical, poetry-writing astronomer (Anneli Martini). Every time a cold pilot (Bianca Cruzeiro) passes her in the halls, MR gazes after her longingly.

And then everything goes wrong. A screw, floating space debris, punctures the hull which leads to a near-meltdown, which leads the panicked crew into ejecting the nuclear core. The ship is off-course and without the ability to steer. As objects do in space, it has no recourse but to continue drifting in the same direction until some force acts upon it. The captain (Arvin Kananian) explains to the passengers that the accident which was “highly unlikely” (read: entirely likely) has just delayed their trip for a bit. They simply need to pass close enough to a planet to be captured by its gravitational force, to circle it, and then to shoot off into space and back on course. He estimates that it should put them about two years behind schedule, an announcement that pulls an audible gasp from the packed auditorium in which he makes this announcement. He assures the passengers that they will be compensated monetarily when they arrive on Mars.

MR’s roommate tells her that this two-year estimate is “highly unlikely,” that, instead, they’ll probably drift indefinitely, maybe forever. Although this news isn’t widely shared on Aniara, anxiety spreads throughout the vessel anyway. MR finds that passengers are cuing up early in the morning for the Mima’s services, that the floor is so full of customers that she has difficulty tiptoeing between their prostrate bodies. The Mima begins muttering statements that sound like poetry (it is poetry, much of it straight from the original text): “I cry for the stones” and “I’ve seen the granite’s whole heart weeping” and so on. MR concludes that the passengers’ needs are overwhelming the Mima, that they’re killing it. She shares her concerns with the captain who, these days, about a half-year in, has grown a shaggy beard and seems to be working out every time she speaks to him. He shrugs off her worries, says that the goal is to maintain calm. We are to understand that this need, this desire, which is killing the Mima is the same all-consuming greed which killed the dead planet that the Mima now channels for these grief-stricken passengers. No surprise, MR is correct: The Mima dies. Because the captain needs a scapegoat, MR is it. This is when the pilot, Isagel, sticks up for her, actually attacking the captain in the process. MR and Isagel get thrown into the brig, a futuristic dungeon off-stage.

Three years pass. As Aniara continues to drift through outer space and the passengers learn to live in artificial light, the world of the ship starts to deteriorate, becoming a drifting dystopia. The formerly pristine halls fill with trash. Sex cults spring up. Suicides soar to the point that the captain pulls prisoners, including MR and Isagel, out of the brig and offers them their old jobs back. MR and Isagel have fallen in love. They soon have a baby together. MR, it turns out, is much more competent than simply a futuristic flight attendant. She starts teaching young people, “our future,” applied science courses. She ropes these young people into helping her build a new Mima from the parts of the old. What was a VR experience will now be a screen projecting waterfalls and similar New Age images through the port windows of the ship. The cynical astronomer says, “You’re building a substitute for the substitute.”

It’s difficult to describe the plot of a sci-fi film without it sounding a little silly, but Aniara is beautiful, a chilling film that is often quite suspenseful and, despite its somber tone, is never boring. Amazingly, its reported budget is under two million Euros, about three hundred times cheaper than a bloated, overlong Happy Meal like Avengers: Endgame. The CGI is utilized judiciously, external shots of the ship juxtaposed with public spaces which seem packed to the gills with passengers and strangely abandoned hallways which are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. The soundtrack by Alexander Berg is some of the creepiest, most effective sci-fi music since Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Sophie Winqvist’s sure cinematography positions extreme closeups with long shots both to suggest greater space inside the ship and also to create a looming feeling of anxiety as we journey forward in the plot. The script is devastating, the film offering one of the bleakest endings of any movie I have seen in recent memory. And yet, despite all of this, the movie ends, unpredictably, unbelievably, with a final image of optimism—as if to say, “You humans don’t deserve it, but there’s still a tiny bit of hope for you.” Or maybe, “Do you really want to tread this path?”

Like all good science fiction, the film is very much about the world we live in now. It channels real existential worries tied to climate change and a resumed nuclear arms race—worries, especially the later, that Martinson was grappling with at the midpoint of the last century. The film also puts a tiny pin prick in the word balloon holding all of that utopian language coming from the mouth of Elon Musk and others about colonizing Mars. If utopian literature has taught us nothing else in the four-and-a-half centuries between Thomas More’s Utopia and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” every utopia is really just a dystopia in disguise.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in PloughsharesJuked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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