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'Aniara' review: A gripping and unpredictable space ride

The Swedish sci-fi drama is loosely based on Harry Martinson's epic poem. 

A scene from  the Swedish sci-fi drama

A scene from  the Swedish sci-fi drama "Aniara." Photo Credit: Magnet Releasing

‘Aniara’

Directed by Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja

Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian

Rated R

Playing at IFC Center

Space is truly the final frontier in “Aniara,” an unpredictable and gripping Swedish sci-fi drama. Loosely based on a 1956 epic poem by Nobel Prize-winning author Harry Martinson, the Aniara is an enormous transport ship that makes three-week journeys to Mars. Its passengers are saying goodbye to an Earth choked with pollution and rattled by weather disasters.

We’ll eventually meet the captain and the top ranking crew, but most of the time we’re with a woman called Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) who works in what’s basically a space mall. She operates the Mima: part “Star Trek” holodeck, part mind-reader which creates a calming spell that evokes past natural sensations. It is never really explained (nor is Aniara’s propulsion system) but directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja take full advantage of these scenes for visual purposes.

Trouble comes when space debris smashes into the ship. They survive but they can’t steer. There is enough algae to create food indefinitely, but until they happen upon a celestial body with a big enough gravity well to send them back, they are lost in space and gaining distance. As the years move on, “Aniara” transforms into an anthropological film. Society doesn’t totally dissolve, but it grows less recognizable.

Mimaroben begins a love affair with one of the pilots (Bianca Cruzeiro) but the futility and frustration of their predicament is a constant threat to their happiness. Extreme behavior and eventual sex cults are just around the corner. After the Mima “dies” (too many bad vibes), Mimaroben devotes herself to creating a kind of substitute. There’s also a blip on the radar that might be help from home if they can figure out how to use it.

Though there are action elements in “Aniara,” it works best as a mood piece. While it admittedly reeks of dorm room wisdom to suggest “we’re all just trapped on a ship headed nowhere, man,” Kagerman and Lilja tease out each development with only the essentials. The world building comes from the well-written scenes and sensational production design. Characters weave in and out over the vast stretches of time, as they do in a life.

Aniara comes from a Greek word meaning “despairing,” and sadness permeates every scene. But this is also an angry film, with flashes of dark humor. More importantly, for something meant to symbolize all of life itself, it is also beautiful. Enjoy the ride, you are on board either way.

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