Monday, May 13, 2019

Aniara: Poetic Existential Swedish SF

Henry Martinson is the awkward Nobel laureate. He and a Swedish compatriot were on the selection committee that year, so everyone assumed the fix was in. The resulting gossip and criticism drove him to suicide. He would be better remembered as one of the few laureates who experimented with science fiction, along with Doris Lessing. His science fiction epic poem (103 cantos) would be a daunting challenge to adapt for the big screen, but Pella Kagerman & Hugo Lilja capture a sense of Martinson’s melancholy and existential angst in Aniara, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

In a way, the Aniara is like the S.S. Minnow on a galactic scale (they were on a 23-day voyage, a 23-day voyage). It was a space shuttle that turned into a generation ship. The Aniara was supposed to ferry a lucky shipload of passengers from a dying Earth to the new colonies on Mars. Unfortunately, a freak accident blew out the engines and sent it hurtling off course. There is enough power to maintain life support, gravity, and the self-sustaining food stores, but that cannot maneuver. The flight crew hopes they can use the gravity of a planet to sling shot them back towards Mars, but they have no idea when they will approach one at close enough range.

Frankly, Captain Chefone does not inspire much confidence. He turns out to be an instinctive martinet, who often optimistic assurances frequently crater into dust. Isagel, his science officer, is his polar opposite. Clear-eyed in her assessments, but prone to pessimism, she will find herself consigned to the brig along with her lover, the “Mimaroben.” Her job was to maintain the “Mima,” a rough equivalent of the holodeck, which projected pictures of Earth from its pristine past to sooth passengers’ homesickness. Unfortunately, the Mimaroben was scapegoated for its untimely demise. However, as the years pass, Chefone will need her skills and those of Isagel, allowing them to supposedly restart their lives together—if such is possible on the Aniara. Opinions will vary.

It is surprisingly unsettling to watch the years roll by on the Aniara and to observe the social changes that occur, as well as the resulting physical wear-and-tear wrought on the ship itself. We see cults rise, personalities implode, hopes rise and fall, and social structures break-down. Arguably, this is the closest we will probably ever get to see an Olaf Stapledon’s galactic history novels adapted on-screen (which would probably be even more difficult to adapt than Martinson’s epic poem, but Kagerman & Lilja are certainly welcome to try).

Emelie Jonsson covers an unusually broad emotional spectrum for science fiction, or any respectable genre for that matter. As the Mimaroben, she swings from despondent to empowered and then back again, several times over. Bianca Cruzeiro’s portrayal of Isagel could be considered a case study for why intelligent people get depressed more frequently. Arvin Kananian’s work as Chefone is even more intriguing. He is a despot to Isagel and the Mimaroben, but he clearly believes every decision he makes is in the best interest of the collective group. In fact, it would be rather fascinating to watch the film remade from his perspective.

Kagerman & Lilja are remarkably adept at translating big cosmic sf themes on-screen. Of course, they benefited from the crucial contributions of Linnea Pettersson and Maja-Stina Asberg’s design team, who created an entirely convincing, self-contained environment, which they first rendered in sparkly splendor and then to tarnish and decay into a grungy tenement in space. It is smart sf, but not exactly an uplifting vision of humanity. Recommended for fans of literate indie science fiction, Aniara opens this Friday (5/17) in LA, at the Landmark Nuart, and also releases on iTunes.