Coming to US theatres and on VOD on May 17th is the Swedish feature film Aniara, based on some of the most famous Swedish science fiction ever written. Originally a response to World War 2’s nuclear watershed and the Cold War, the story is still relevant in light of environmental disasters mankind may be facing.
In 1956, the Swedish author Harry Martinson (1904 – 1978) wrote and published Aniara, a science fiction poem consisting of 103 cantos (a form of division in medieval and modern epic poetry). It relates the tragedy of a huge spacecraft (4,750 meters X 891 meters) bound for Mars with a cargo of colonists from the ravaged Earth. After an accident, the ship is ejected from the solar system and into an existential struggle. The poem’s style is symbolic, sweeping and is considered innovative for its time, with use of neologisms (words so new they aren’t widely known or used) to suggest the science fictional setting. A brief translated excerpt:
We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma 1 scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.
The word aniara comes from ancient Greek, meaning boring, sad or dull. The poem was quickly applauded and its publication became a success, and contributed to Martinsson winning the Nobel prize in litterature in 1974. An opera was made in 1959, a TV version in 1960, a stage play was performed in 1982 as well as several times later, a ballet was produced in 1988, and various concerts, musicals and even a comic book version has been produced in Sweden. This testifies the legacy of the poem and its long standing respect among both artists and audiences.
So far the poem; now the movie. Until now, a feature film version had not been made. Not that film adaptions of poems are common in Sweden, and it was also a cultural problem that the original work was science fiction litterature. However that changed in October 2016 when shooting started. The film adapts the poem and is not merely inspired by it, and the story is roughly the same: Aniara is one of the many spaceships used for transporting Earth’s fleeing population to their new home planet Mars. But just as the ship leaves the destroyed Earth, she collides with space junk and is thrown off her course. The passengers slowly realize that they’ll never be able to return. The protagonist, MR, runs a room where a sentient computer allows humans to experience near-spiritual memories of the Earth. As the ship drifts further into the endless void more and more passengers are in need of MR’s services. Pressure builds on MR as she is the only one who can keep the growing insanity and lethal depression at bay. In Aniara’s inexorable journey towards destruction there is a warning that cannot be emphasized enough: There’s only one Earth. It’s time to take responsibility for our actions.
The film is written and directed by a team made up of Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja; Aniara is their debut film but they have worked together since 2009. Kågerman is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm and Lilja studied at the Institute of Dramatic Arts. His short The Unliving (2014) was well reviewed in these pages. With Anaria he is now a feature film director and his 1h 46min film’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018. It has since been shown at film festivals in Sweden, Argentina, Portugal and the Netherlands. It’s Swedish theatrical release began on February 1st this year and May 17th sees it’s US release on numerous VOD platforms and in selected US theatres, courtesy of Magnet Releasing. The film has also secured distribution in France, where its 18 year age limit was set due to explicit nudity – and what is possibly the first sex orgy in space, at least in a mainstream film!
The two directors cite the lack of budgets for science fiction as the reason why not more genre entries are made in Sweden. On a low budget it’s even harder. -It was like jumping [into a pool] from the 10 meter diving board with a triple twist. At one point we felt that if we had [had some experience in movie making] we would not have made this film, because then we would have known how incredibly difficult it would be. There are so many parameters, not least how it takes place during so many years, Pella Kågerman said to MovieZine. The story unfolds over no less than 5981407 years – yes, that’s almost 6 million years!
The idea to make a film version came a few years ago when Kågerman’s grandmother suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. This actually happened the day after grandma and Pella had seen a stage version in Gothenburg. Pella read the book out loud to grandma as she improved, and even though the poetry was hard to digest from a linguistic perspective, the story itself grabbed a hold of him. He then started to talk to Lilja about how the film could be done in practical terms. Since thousands of people had to be transported for weeks to another destination, like a ferry, the idea came to design the space craft as a people carrier with shopping malls. After all, the transportation could be financed by shopping, like so much else in today’s society.
The 19 million SEK film (nearly 2 million USD / 1.7 million EUR) thus became a “no set sci-fi” due to using already existing locations that didn’t even look very futuristic; a ferry to Finland called Viking Grace, the Waterfront hotel and convention centre in Stockholm, the shopping malls Mall of Scandinavia and Sollentuna Galleria, to name a few. Part of the idea was that the space ship’s interiors should be familiar rather than exotic, as the ship is an allegory for Earth, a habitat that for obvious reasons is familiar to everyone. To use set designs that links the film to current times rather than the future says something about what the planet is going through today, not in some random distant future, where a lot of science fiction takes place. Aniara is a low budget science fiction movie in global terms but still a moderately budgeted Swedish film, and probably the only 19 million SEK spent on adult cinematic science fiction in Sweden since Storm in 2006.
While hardcore science fiction is not unheard of in the Nordic region (Kenny Starfighter and Alone in Space come to mind, although both were for children, and Blindpassasjer was a TV miniseries), it is rare and Aniara is even more rare because it’s aimed at adults. A literary, existential feature where art-house meets mainstream, complete with an ambitious script, CGI, a space craft and world-building is not a daily offering, not even an annual. Beyond that, both visually and in its theme the film is something that probably have never been made in Sweden before. A Swedish 2001: A space odyssey perhaps? You be the judge next week, if you watch films on American VOD platforms. Critics who already judged the film had mixed or positive reactions. On Rotten Tomates, the US reviews aggregator, the film holds a 58% approval which is slightly less than its 68% rating by film fans on Imdb. Swedish press went further in their approvals. Aniara currently holds an average score of 75% from 15 media reviews in Sweden, i.e. a little less than 4 on the Swedish 1-5 scale. The biggest fan was the major newspaper SVD, which gave the film their maximum rating (six), a rare achievement for a Swedish genre film in mainstream media.
- SVD: “Kågerman and Lilja have made a film that is both a faithful and a personal interpretation of one of Sweden’s greatest literary works, and skillfully and precisely brought it right up to date. That is highly impressive.”
- Nöjesguiden: “…a classy and steady presentation of timeless alienation as well as our eternal struggle for happiness that Harry Martinsson so painfully captured […] Aniara is a dystopic punch in the face when it is at its best.” Rated 4 of 5.
- TT / Gunnar Rehlin: “In these days when climate deniers do their best to ensure the apocalypse, Aniara [the poem] has never been more relevant. And this film is really good, it’s an increasingly creepier and more claustrophobic journey towards the end. Aniara does not have to be ashamed in front of any multi mullion dollar Hollywood movie – [even though] we predict that no Hollywood movie would include a sex orgy with a close-up of an erect penis.” Rated 4 of 5.
- Variety: “… impressive in its scope and intimate in its portrait of human nature under long-term duress. Though inevitably destined to frustrate genre fans who think they want something different but still require conventional action thrills, Kagerman and Lilja’s first feature should intrigue and reward those inclined toward adult drama who wouldn’t normally expect such tropes from a sci-fi movie. […] Aniara is at once grounded and philosophical, fantastical and banal.”
- MovieZine: “There’s not an awful lot of typical, clear story. There’s a lesbian love story, advanced performance art, existential anxiety… Be warned, [the film] is more aimed at art fans and cinephiles than sci-fi nerds. [The directors obviously] read the rule book, then threw it out the window and did their own thing […] Intangible? Absolutely. But what Aniara does so well is provoking beliefs, about faith, hope and love sbout our short time on Earth and our insignificant relevance in universe. It will all end one day […] Aniara is not like any other space film I have seen.” Rated 4 of 5.
- Film Freak Central: “Aniara is astonishingly ambitious, an unlikely emotional rollercoaster anchored by a beautifully-realized protagonist who manages to maintain hope and optimism without being a Pollyanna.”
- Hollywood Reporter: “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.”
- Film School Rejects: “A thought-provoking and unsettling slow-motion disaster movie.”
- Screen International: “Swedish existential dread in outer space, with a suicidal AI, ritualistic orgies and a giant galactic shopping mall: this striking first feature from Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja is a work of daunting ambition.”
- NOW Toronto: “I didn’t know the world needed a stark European riff on Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise… but take it from me: we did, and now we’ve got it.” Rated 4 of 5.
- Film Threat: “A great concept, a coherent tone, an uncompromising vision, and an ending that’s the ballsiest thing I’ve seen since AI. Sadly these virtues are undercut by some unforgivable sins – it is boring.” Rated 4 of 10.
- Screen Daily: “In terms of design – both production and sound – this is a remarkable achievement. CG rendering of space and and the outside of the vessel is impressive. But it’s the inside of this floating metal box, shown over a time frame that spans 5981407 years, which is horribly convincing. This is not a film which will have audience dancing out of the cinema in a bubble of feelgood escapism. But as an environmental cri de cœur, it is timely and chastening viewing.”
- The Film Stage: “…a stark beauty both in its sci-fi production design and emotionally wrought performances. They present how life is meaningless without a destination — how we’d rather numb ourselves to the helplessness of our situation than embrace the little control we retain. It’s a fascinating character study since Earth is itself a complex self-contained ecosystem floating in space. What then makes Aniara so different?”
US distributor Magnolia’s president Eamonn Bowles said: -We’re thrilled to bring this audacious, intelligent vision to audiences. Pella and Hugo have done an amazing job creating a unique world and society aboard a spaceship.
The film has already won festival awards, such as the Prix Cineuropa and Best Female Performance at the Festival of European Cinema in Les Arcs, France, and the Jury Award at the International Fantastic Film Festival in Gérardmer, France. The film was produced by Annika Rogell and Markus Waltå for Meta Film Stockholm, the company that also made the 2018 hit Border.
Aniara stars Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Peter Carlberg, Emma Broome, Jamil Drissi, Leon Jiber.
Nordic home video distribution is not scheduled yet but the film will eventually be shown on VOD and TV by Viaplay and SVT. It opens in selected US theatres and on US VOD on May 17th, 2019 and plays in Norwegian cinemas from June 3rd.