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by Jay Seaver

"An unusual but fascinating outer-space epic."
4 stars

The opening credits describe "Aniara" as based on a "space epos" and a line or two at the end seem to call back to the old Viking Sagas, although it is very pointedly not a tale of thrilling adventure. It doesn't quite revel in mundanity or despair, but instead plugs away with a combination of practicality and despair, eventually finding a balance between the two that is much better than one might expect.

It opens with MR (Amelie Jonsson) taking the orbital elevator to the Aniara, a ship which makes regular runs between Earth and Mars, although the implication seems to be that this outbound trip sees more people than those coming back to Earth. She's staff, operating the "Mima Hall", a sort of energy field which allows visitors to experience being somewhere else. She's bunking with the ship's astronomer (Anneli Martini) and has her eyes on pilot Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro). It's supposed to be a three-week trip, but an encounter with some tiny pieces of space junk forces the ship to divert and eject their fuel. Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) announces that they will use the gravity of a celestial body to redirect their course to Mars, arriving in no more than two years - although you don't have to be an astronomer to know that the solar system is vast and empty, and getting close enough to an asteroid massive enough to change their course is not likely.

Directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja do interesting things starting with the titles, starting with a tiny pixel grabbing the audience's attention to prepare the audience for the scale involved, followed by presenting many of the opening credits in a closing-style scroll over a series of disastrous stock footage. It signals an ending, that Earth is being fled rather than the ship simply being the twenty-second century equivalent of a steam liner, and that shapes the rest of the movie without a whole lot of talk: The audience never thinks much about rescue, for example, although that might be the focus of another take on similar material, and there's just enough of a combination of high gloss in the effects and setting but passengers with burns to make it clear that this is a somewhat gilded period.

Despite that, things almost seems too mundane to start, with the film's spaceship envisioned as an upscale hotel & shopping galleria, the sort of choice that initially feels like a lack of imagination combined with an eye on shooting practicalities. It winds up working by the filmmakers finding ways to make it weird at the edges, bringing in reminders of limited space and futuristic details as needed without hiding them in corners. It's not quite so fascinating a future world as some, but it's one that can be dirtied up as time passes and run down as need be, and where there's room for the nifty science fiction bits to shine. There's purpose to it - it doesn't take a particularly close read to recognize that the Aniara was thrown off course by a sort of pollution and the situation seeming sustainable but that not actually being the case - while not being wedded to just playing out the metaphor; there's grandeur and intrigue that doesn't have to be tied to something recognizable to be important.

There's also a nice cast, led by Emelie Jonsson, portraying a not-quite-optimistic sort of practicality that makes an important contrast to the delusion and despair of the rest. In some ways, it feels like she's just a match for her job - public-facing but also requiring her walk through a literal reality-distortion field without succumbing to it - but as the film goes on, one comes to admire MR's steadiness and authenticity, with Jonsson always finding a way to show where the cracks are while also making her perseverance (as another character puts it) in the face of seeming doom feel honest and not naive. It's an interesting challenge to handle all these characters under a crushing weight without having the film become mildly pessimistic or swing wildly, but the filmmakers and cast mostly manage it - Bianca Cruzeiro has a terrific arc as Isagel, selling snapshots in time as also being something continuous, and Arvin Kananian puts Chefone at the meeting point of pragmatism, delusion, and megalomania, worrisome but fascinating.

"Aniara" has a bit of art-house pretension to it - the inevitable sex cult section is mainly saved by MR seeming to find the whole thing kind of ridiculous, for instance - but it fulfills its ambition much better than many of its ilk. It's a smart and somehow groundedly-epic film, growing more engrossing as it goes along despite never becoming the action-oriented sci-fi to which the audience may be more accustomed.

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originally posted: 05/20/19 07:01:14
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  17-May-2019 (R)



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