#WomenMakeSF Review (11): Aniara (2019)

AniaraAniara (2019, Sweden | Denmark |USA)

Directors: Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja

Writers: Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja

Women in the crew: Nina Bisgaard, Natalie Farrey, Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (exec. prod.); Maja Brantås, Ronja Larsson, Trin Thomsen, (assist. prod.); Annika Rogell (producer); Lisa Widén (co-prod.); Sophie Winqvist (cinematographer); Linnéa Pettersson, Maja-Stina Åsberg (prod. design); Ellen Utterström (costume); Elin Lilleman Eriksson (3rd AD). Also across art, make-up, visual effects, and sound departments

Available to stream/rent/buy: https://www.justwatch.com/uk/movie/aniara

This review contains **SPOILERS**


The Aniara is a commercial spaceship that goes off-course, on a journey to Mars and then off to nowhere, transporting a lost group of humans who were already forced to leave their poisoned Earth. Aniara is ‘Solaris on speed‘ as woman co-director Pella Kågerman explains. It is a philosophical space movie that asks: what is it be human in a future without the Earth? What happens when Earth is no longer a place we can return to or even save? Is an Earth-less future a future-less future? 

Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara is an adaptation of an epic poem of the same name by Harry Martinson (1956), a Nobel prize winning Swedish poet of the atomic age. The poem is a collection of 103 cantos (songs) that have previously been adapted into a 1959 opera by Karl Birger Blomdahl, a 1960 Swedish TV movie production directed by Arne Arnbom, and translated for broadcast on BBC radio in 1962. Songs recur throughout the film adaptation for comfort, devotion, and mourning. Martinson was writing in response to Hiroshima and Cold War nuclear proliferation and his future forecasting lyrics recount the tale of an abandoned ship of people who have lost their past and have no future. Kågerman was given permission to adapt Martinson’s poem with the agreement of the poet’s daughters, Harriet and Eva who asked her to retain the poem’s dark original ending.

Mimaroben (in white) from the 1959 Opera

“…entombed in our immense sarcophagus
we were borne on across the desolate waves
of space-night, so unlike the day we’d known,
unchallenged silence closing round our grave…’

Canto 103, ‘Aniara’ by Harry Martinson
(1998 trans. Klass & Sjoberg)

This eco-SF film begins with a near future imagining of the culmination of the sixth extinction. Humans are forced to leave the planet they have destroyed. News reports show mass ecological devastation as the opening credits roll and any remaining humans (or rather those who can afford to do so) have left for new Martian settlements. But there is an ‘incident’ at the beginning of their 3-week cruise to Mars and the Aniara is pushed off course and her fuel supply jettisoned to avoid a fatal collision with space debris. But this means that the ship’s crew are unable to change their course and are thus forced to journey on into nothingness. They give the passengers false hope as they suggest that on contact with the gravitational pull of a celestial body they will be able to get back on course. But in truth their current trajectory will not bring them into contact with a planet for almost 6 million years.

There are parallels to extinction event narratives like Battlestar Galactica, The 100, and even Wall.E, where a limited human colony is forced into space on a potentially endless wait for Earth to recover or in search of a new settlement. In Aniara the threat to human survival is isolation, time, and the self rather than Cylons, depleting resources (air and algae), and even apathy. The film asks us to contemplate what we would do if our future was futureless? What if we were forced to leave Earth? If our survival doesn’t mean anything (these are not the last humans), is it worth carrying on?

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Opening credits from ANIARA with documentary footage of eco-disaster

The main character is MR (Emelie Jonsson)—a skilled engineer and the ship’s the mimaroben who hosts/operates the MIMA, which is an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience. Her given name is simply a nickname taken from her job title. In the original poem the mimarobe is a servant (human interface) to the MIMA, defined by his fealty to the machine that assumes the consciousness of the voyagers. In the 1959 opera adaptation of the poem, MIMA is a more definable computer that controls the Aniara, but becomes inert when the Earth is destroyed. In this modern AI-focussed adaptation, MR—defined only by her job title and not a name—can resist MIMA’s somnolent effects and (believes that she) communes with it. But rather than being connected irrevocably to the passengers of the Aniara, this sentient VR chooses its own path into the future.

“I am of Mima and so am called no more than mimarobe.” Cantos 34

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A gender-flipped Miraroben (Emelie Jonsson) – nicknamed MR

MR shares a bunk with another employee/passenger: The Astronomer (Anneli Martini). At first I had thought that this was a nod to or parallel to Annihilation, where the women of STEMM are defined by their expertise rather than a gendered name. But Aniara offers no such feminist potential; instead it just adds to the sense of futility and isolation that the passengers and crew experience. The misanthropic astronomer is villainous only in her desire to tell the truth. The truth that the ship is going to be the only place they and their descendants are likely to ever experience. The ship is self-sustaining, but can the humans on board go on living knowing that this is all there is for them? The Astronomer’s revelations lead to suicides, depression and addictive delusions aided by the ship’s MIMA.

MIMA is a little bit holodeck, a little bit Obsidian Platinum, and a little bit of a Samantha. Intended at first to allow passengers to feel and experience ‘the Earth as it once was’, MIMA draws upon the memories of the people who connect to it. MIMA allows them to return to the simplicity of a now-destroyed natural world—dawn choruses, babbling brooks, and the salty air of the coast. MIMA is a super-advanced VR attraction on a cruise ship to a new life on Mars, placed alongside other distractions/attractions including a shopping mall, a food court, and entertainment arcades: a way of passing the time. But as the time that must be passed becomes potentially endless, the passengers become addicted to the MIMA experience and their once entertaining reveries become nightmares. 

The MIMA – VR escape to feeling the natural world that humans destroy in ANIARA

VR becoming addictive is a popular trope in contemporary SF such as the Obsidian implants in Supergirl and Reverie in Reverie. But these stories tend to focus on saving humans from the VR that they don’t want to and sometimes can’t leave. Often choosing to remain in the virtual world to avoid the pain of their reality (e.g., bereavement), concerned family, friends, and specialists must draw them back to reality with the promise that life will get better. 

MIMA is an AI designed to develop and grow with the memories and experiences that it comes into contact with through its users, a record of the natural world created through unfiltered lived experiences. At first MR is shown struggling to pull in participants for the VR experience as other commercial and communal activities draw the crowds. But over the first three years passengers need a greater hit of distraction and so they turn to the MIMA. Flooding ‘her’ with data (the memories captured) that is both tranquil and traumatic, MIMA intimately experiences the destruction of the world she was developed to ‘remember’ and ‘recreate’. MIMA becomes increasingly self aware, but unlike Samantha in Her, MIMA is not connected to an infinite network of other AIs that it can escape to and separate from the needy damaged humans. ‘She’ is as trapped as the rest of the people onboard. 

MIMA has the potential to turn against the humans (like the Machines in The Matrix)—they willingly give themselves over to the machine—but instead chooses to self-destruct, refusing to serve as solace for a species that failed to conserve the irreplaceable pale blue dot. The apparent safety of the dreamstate provided by the MIMA becomes unstable as forests burn and birds fall from the sky. MIMA seems to lose ‘her’ mind and, as members of a techno-cult that emerges following MIMA’s ‘death’ explain, she dies from grief. ‘She’ mourns a world and set of experiences that cannot be substituted or recaptured even by advanced technology. MIMA struggles to separate the images of macro destruction that humans are perhaps almost numb to (new reported images of fires, flooding, extinction, starvation…) from the pleasant individual daily experiences of nature that we don’t always connect to the larger eco-disaster that we face.

MIMA ‘dies’ relatively early in the film’s run time. They are only three years into the journey when the system is overwhelmed. They have created, as Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) remarks, their ‘own planet’ on the Aniara: a system that produces enough oxygen and foodstuffs (algae will save us!) for survival. At first memories of the world they destroyed and left behind become taboo as those in charge fear that even images of nature will devastate the fragile human residents. MR wants to use her expertise to build a beam-screen to help the depressed (and mainly her lover Isagel [Bianca Cruzeiro]), a 3D rendering of some of the natural images perhaps found amongst MIMA’s corrupted memory space. But she is instead conscripted into teaching, although eventually and with the support of her students she does create her 3D projectors that offer a glimmer of hope in the darkness of deep space. But flickering hope and uncanny natural scenes cannot help Isagel.

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MR’s Beam-Screen that acts as a substitute for the MIMA that was a substitute for ‘real’ nature

MR has hope. The Astronomer tells her she is delusional and lying to herself. But it is there throughout the film. The seemingly out of place dance sequences show her letting go, feeling, and allowing herself to experience everything she can. She falls in love with Isagel (the woman pilot; the original Isagel was also a woman and like MR  her ‘name’ is just a ‘code word’). In a search for connection and hope they investigate the cults that emerge only a year after MIMA is lost. In an orgy that follows one of their experiences with the cults Isagel becomes pregnant. A possible symbol of hope (children are our future, etc.)? They raise the child together. But as the value and purpose MR has found in teaching and developing the beam-screen technology makes her life seems worth living, she discovers that Isagel and their child are dead in a tragic murder/suicide. MR continues on. We see her for the last time at an awkward 10th anniversary event where she is awarded a prize for her beam screen. Time passes, 25 years later, and then a blink later the film’s closing shots show the Aniara in the year 5,981,407, dead and floating above a planet in the Lyra constellation.   

The Aniara finally gets to the planet that once offered them hope. But in that distant future the ship is just  a piece of space debris, a celestial sarcophagus for a part of the human species that was lost and soon forgotten. They are not humanity’s last hope, they are little more than debris lost in the vastness of space. Our world is worth saving: it is a home, a purpose, a gift. Hope and wishful thinking can only get us so far—our individual contributions matter, but in the face of massive institutional and corporate greed and destruction we can only manage so much. As MR exclaims in a moment of frustration: their experiences on Aniara are not better than those on the cold desolation of Mars and suggests that their survival is not just individual but collective and even generational. MR has hope beyond her own life and experience. The Aniara could have become a generation ship that would have meant keeping this journey going across generations born on the ship until a destination was reached. But instead of thinking of the future, the crew and passengers are (quite understandably) focussed on their own immediate experiences. They give up hope (by year 4 techno-sex cults emerge, obvs).

What happens if we give up hope and fighting for the future? What if we completely desensitise ourselves from the reality of the Anthropocene and our broken planet? Why, despite being fully aware of the facts and the urgency of the climate situation, don’t we (as a global human race) really do anything to radically address our present-day environmental disaster? What happens when we lose eco-empathy and embrace eco-apathy? Let’s find our ecological hope and empathy because I (and future generations) really don’t want to end up on the Aniara.* 


*Mars doesn’t sound that fun either. 

Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja


What to watch next from Pella Kågerman:
Aniara is Kågerman’s first feature film as a director. She co-wrote postapocalyptic zombie film The Unliving (2010, 28 min) with Hugo Lilja, which he also directed.

She has also directed some short films:
The Swedish Empire (2014)
Stormaktstiden (2014)
The Swedish Supporter (2011)
Body Contact – a segment from  Dirty Diaries (2009), which includes 12 shorts directed by young women artists, directors and feminists to create ’12 propositions to rethink pornography.’

Further reading
Harry Martinson (1998 [1956]) Aniara: An Epic Science Fiction Poem. Trans. Klass, S. & Sjoberg, L. Story Line Press.

Keno Katsuda (2018)TIFF 2018 Women Directors: Meet Pella Kågerman – “Aniara” [interview]. Women and Hollywood [online].  https://womenandhollywood.com/tiff-2018-women-directors-meet-pella-kagerman-aniara/ 

‘ANIARA: en revy om människan i tid och rum’ – 60 years since its publication by Bonniers, Stockholm – 1956-2016. Archives @ University of Edinburgh [online]. http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/edinburghuniversityarchives/tag/harry-martinson/ 

Kim Skjoldager-Nielsen (2020) The Role of Dystopian Art in the Climate Crisis. Peripeti . 17(32): 32-34.

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