'ANIARA': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
The big void.

This Swedish film from Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja is an adaptation of the epic science-fiction poem by Harry Martinson.

Perhaps only the late Andrei Tarkovsky could have properly made a film out of Harry Martinson’s epic science-fiction poem ANIARA. A contemplation of the meaninglessness of existence set on a giant spaceship heading nowhere, this ambitious Swedish production has in its favor a provocative premise and a pronounced visual style. But the characters are uninteresting and this first feature by writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja never establishes a coherent intellectual vantage point from which to contemplate the monumentality of the eternal void. It’s a film that wants to be visionary but isn’t.

In the wake of unseen Earthly devastation, space vehicles head for Mars aboard enormous transport ships carrying thousands of passengers. The ANIARA is basically an airborne mall, filled with mindless distractions that directly copy what the populace was accustomed to back home; as long they have these familiar comforts of home, all should be well.

But before the 23-day voyage is over, the ship is knocked off course and heads out of the solar system, irreversibly on a trip to nowhere. It’s the ultimate existential condition, a genuine confrontation with the great void. Even the mall can’t distract people from the prospect of an empty eternity, one, moreover, where the only food available will be processed algae that can be grown onboard.

The main character may be named Mr but is, in fact, a woman (Emelie Jonsson), a rather agitated redhead who’s in charge of a room where, by placing your face down into a bowl-like sphere, you can recapture memories of your former home planet. Largely ignored at first, this attraction suddenly becomes more popular now that the future appears so bleak, and it’s eventually followed by orgies and other distractions, anything to fill the endless time.

Elements of intrigue and lying by those in command briefly surface, but in the long run the captain cannot deny the truth, so there is not a thing to alleviate the boredom and no way out of the bleak nothingness that faces the passengers on their journey to nowhere. There is mention of suicides and the growth of cults, but none of this is dramatized. The situation quite effectively sums up the meaningless of life without destination, hope or belief in something greater.

But while the themes are clear, drama is perilously missing. Other than for Mr and the captain, there are no characters worth mentioning, so it might have behooved the writers to introduce a few people of different stripes, backgrounds and religious/philosophical outlooks to comment on the existential journey on which they now find themselves. The lack of perspectives and attitudes about the circumstances felt by the participants feels like a big void in and of itself.

Despite the vivid visualization of the banality of human life under such conditions, one is left with little with which to engage. Where is Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy or, for that matter, Woody Allen when we need them? Somebody to offer some perspective, insight or wit about the most extreme manifestation of an existential predicament.

Physically, it’s an impressive production, one that offers a few glimpses of the ship moving through the darkness but is otherwise confined to a few mall-like spaces but moreso to cramped quarters.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Production: Meta Film
Cast: Emelie Jonsson, Arvin Kananian, Bianca Cruzeiro, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Peter Carlberg, Emma Broome
Directors: Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja
Screenwriters: Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja
Producers: Annika Rogell, Markus Walta
Executive producers: Meta Louise Foldager Sorensen, Nina Bisgaard, Eddy Moretti, Danny Gabai, Natalie Farrey, Vincent Landa, Glenn Lund
Director of photography: Sophie Winqvist Loggins
Production designers: Linnea Petterson, Maja-Stina Asberg
Editors: Pella Kagerman, Bjorn Kessler, Michal Leszczylowski
Music: Alexander Berg

106 minutes