Thursday, 23 January 2020


Won’t Get Fuelled Again

Sweden/Denmark 2019
Directed by Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja
Arrow Films  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight story set-up spoilers.

This is another movie I got for my birthday which I fancied having a look at. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice and I’m glad I did because Aniara is one stylish and gripping slice of science fiction.

Based on an epic poem by writer Harry Martinson, Aniara tells the tale of the inhabitants of a starship who get pushed off course without fuel and without any real hope of rescue. Starting off with the central character Mimaroben, as she takes a space elevator (not unlike those conceived of by Arthur C. Clarke) to the big, flat slab of city that is the spaceship Aniara. Various people are fleeing an ‘almost post apocalyptic’ earth to join their friends and families on Mars, a trip which should take a matter of a few weeks until something goes very wrong on the flight.

Mimaroben is played, quite brilliantly, by an actress called Emelie Jonsson. She works on the ship looking after the MIMA, supervising people and training them up to be able to use the facilities. The MIMA is, basically, a sentient, glorified holo-deck of the mind. Several customers go ito the MIMA chamber and lay with their head pointing down as MIMA extracts their memories and shows them complete sensory, virtual reality style scenarios of scenes of ‘old Earth’ (forests, lakes etc) which are personal to them. Mimaroben is not all that busy because not very many people want to use this outlet.

So here we have a, more or less, floating city in space called Aniara which is on a three week voyage to Mars and which looks like a shapeless version of the Cygnus from The Black Hole. All is well and good until an accident which sends the ship off course causes the flight crew to jettison the nuclear fuel, thus rendering the steering of the Aniara impossible. After this happens, the captain explains to the passengers that they are going to try and slingshot themselves around the first celestial body they find to get them back on course. However, they also warn it could take up to 2 years before they pass one. After the uproar has died down, quite sometime later, the astronomer who is sharing Mimaroben’s quarters tells her that there was never going to be the chance they would come across a celestial body and that they are stuck drifting in space for good. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go down well with the passengers but there’s not much anyone can do except try and get along.

And, of course, everything goes on a downward spiral from there. MIMA, overwhelmed by the amount of people queuing around the block to use it and the negative impressions it gets from their minds, gains a kind of bleak consciousness and, after a while, starts taking people to horrific places in their minds before it commits suicide, effectively blowing itself up. Then things start to go down hill even more although Mimaroben does take on a lover... the ship’s once pilot Isagel, played by Bianca Cruzeiro. When Isagel gets impregnated at an orgiastic sex ritual in remembrance of MIMA, held by one of the cult religious groups which have sprung up on the ship, the couple even have a young child to raise.

The film looks at Mimaroben and the world as she experiences it through a two hour film split, for the first 1 hour and 50 minutes, into little sub chapters which take us from hour one of the voyage through to ten years later. Some chapters have a subtitle such as The Sarcophagus and, ten minutes before the end it skips to year 24. Then, for the last few minutes, it skips to a good many millennia ahead, as we rejoin the ship on its journey.

And it’s a really good time with vivid performances by the two actresses I mentioned before, not to mention the brilliance of The Astronomer, played by Anneli Martini and the absolute idiot of a captain played by Arvin Kananian. Emelie Jonsson is particularly wonderful as Mimaroben, playing it as a fairly buoyant, upbeat character who tries not to get too affected by all the misery and depression she sees around her... indeed, at one point during the ‘journey’, the suicide rate on the starship is up to 48 people per month. It’s a quite remarkable performance and it’s a shame, in a way, that nobody at the Oscars is taking note of films like this.

The way the film is structured and shot is also pretty great. Early on we get a sales pitch video introducing customers (and the audience) to what they can expect on Aniara as a kind of virtual tour of the facilities... much like the opening of David Cronenberg’s Shivers (reviewed here) but with the camera capturing the video in various rooms as it follows people around different places on the ship. It’s a good thing to do, of course, because it lets the audience know how the passengers can survive in space for that long and also what can go wrong with the facilities.

The cinematography and shot design is gorgeous, of course. I was particularly struck early on in the film when Mimaroben (who suffers from panic attacks in the early stages of the movie) is journeying up to another deck in a lift. The interior walls are surfaced with mirrors and we can see the reflection of her face in deep focus filling up two thirds of the shot while her real face is up close and personal on the left, blurred out. After we watch the other passengers leave from behind Mimaroben to get off at their floor, the camera shifts focus so the reflected image becomes a blur and we finish that journey with the close up of her head in focus so we can pick up on her expressions. It’s a nice moment in a film full of great moments which includes joyous celebrations but also some real down beats with the occasional scenes of violence thrown in, which shock not from their level of gory detail (which is fairly minimal) but from the sense of injustice and consequence wrapped up in the various violent acts.

The ending and inevitability of the ultimate fate of the remaining characters, plus the ironic final shot, are also played out with a certain 'matter of fact' gravitas, although there are moments of pure visual poetry too... I can imagine Andrei Tarkovsky trying to tackle the same material at some point in his ‘too short’ career. It’s not quite reminiscent of his style but certainly something I think he might have found intriguing... especially the use of manipulated memory by way of MIMA.

Being that this is an Arrow release, of course, there’s a fair few extras on here, one of which is a really nice half hour zombie short which the same director and writer had made nearly ten years earlier called The Unliving. This features the same lead actress as Aniara and dives into political and emotional issues in a post-apocalyptic near future where zombies are lobotomised and used as a work force for the survivors of the original outbreak (there's even a popular zombie opera singer). I won’t say much about the film here other than, it deservedly won some awards.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say on this little package. Aniara is a really good film and certainly worth putting up there with certain other ‘space bound classics’ of the last 60 years or so (yeah, you know the ones I mean). It was certainly a more fulfilling and rewarding film than last year’s High Life (which it shares some common ground with, reviewed here) and Ad Astra (reviewed here), the latter of which was kind of let down a little by the impotency of its ending. In terms of great science fiction cinema, this one is the real deal and it gets a strong recommendation from me for sure. Miss this one at your peril.

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