Science fiction writers and dreamers have long been fascinated with the concept of life beyond Earth. Maybe it’s on the dark side of the Moon, maybe it’s on Mars; maybe Titan, maybe another solar system altogether. Surely we can’t be the only things out here? As Carl Sagan said, “Seems like an awful waste of space.”
Set in the near future, the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara takes it both ways. First, as a standard story of humans leaving Earth en route to Mars, where they will live far away from the tumultuous climate of Earth. Their ship, named the Aniara, is a cross between a massive cruise ship and a shopping mall. Not a bad way to spend the three-week voyage. But when a piece of space debris — a small screw carelessly left behind from another ship — threatens the Aniara, the ship takes a hard left turn to avoid certain death. Still, the screw does manage to strike the ship, right in the engines. To avoid destruction, the Aniara jettisons all of its fuel.
Off course, adrift, and without communication capabilities, the Aniara has no choice but to wait until the ship passes closes enough to a planet to use its gravitational pull to redirect their course. The captain tells the passengers they anticipate two years until this opportunity presents itself. An astronomer on board knows it will take much, much longer.
Written and directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, Aniara is based on the 1956 poem by Harry Martinson about a ship adrift in space. The name “Aniara” is derived from the Greek word for sad/depressing: ἀνιαρός, which fits Aniara like a glove.
Kagerman and Lilja are somewhat clever in their approach. The first couple of years of Aniara’s voyage, people pretty much behave the way they always have. There are enough distractions in a mall, after all, but there is also Mima: a sentient force that resides in a room and can show you all your favorite memories. Like a drug, the passengers flock to Mima until they overwhelm Mima with memories and “she” destroys herself.
Lost in space, the passengers of Aniara form relationships and raise children. Cults crop up, and suicides abound. Some slip into alcoholism. And as interesting as Aniara is to think about — particularly how the passengers become microcosms of humanity — the movie isn’t exactly an engaging watch. Though it clocks in shy of two hours, Aniara feels sluggish and still. Sure, there is enough here to get the gears upstairs going, but a reading of the poem might accomplish the same and more.
At this year’s Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, Michelle Thaller of NASA spoke candidly about the fantasy of colonizing worlds beyond Earth: It’s simply not going to happen, Thaller said, which is why we have to work together to fix Earth here and now.
Aniara seems to agree. Climate change is what forced everyone on Aniara off Earth, and in a cruel twist of fate, a piece of space trash is what forced Aniara off course and into the icy grave of space. It appears that the bed we’ve made is inescapable.