Chris Knight: This long, dark voyage, which culminates in a chilling coda
The notion of a giant, space-borne hotel and shopping centre makes very little economic sense. Given launch costs, can you imagine the price of a Cinnabon beyond lunar orbit?
But that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from toying with the idea, from the luxury ship Axiom in the animated WALL-E to the Avalon in the more recent (and disappointing) Passengers. Joining the list – and continuing the trend of A-list names – is Aniara, the luxury Earth-to-Mars liner in the low-budget, high-concept Swedish science-fiction film of the same name.
Emilie Jonsson stars as the ship’s Mimaroben; it seems to be both her name and her job title, as she is in charge of a computer called Mima, which can cause passengers to have detailed, relaxing hallucinations of the natural beauty of the planet they’ve left behind. That becomes all the more important when the Aniara suffers a malfunction in the early hours of its voyage, and is knocked off course, heading for interstellar space.
Co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja have adapted a 1956 existential science-fiction epic poem by their countryman Harry Martinson. At first, the captain explains that the ship can use a gravity-assist maneuver to slingshot around a planet and get back on course, but that the three-week cruise is now likely to be measured in as many years.
Mima’s services are suddenly in greater demand, to the point that the computer starts to suffer from the stress of overwork. And as the subsequent chapter headings indicate, the captain’s original estimate turns out to be overly optimistic.
What follows is light-years from most science-fiction stories. Most of the ship’s interior resembles an early 21st-century institution with IKEA fittings, and we seldom get more than a fleeting view of the outside, er, world. But Martinson, and by extension the filmmakers, are more concerned with the psychological impact of the disaster – as the years pass, supplies dwindle, suicides mount, children grow up knowing no other place, religious fervour takes hold, and the captain doubles down on his powers.
Mimaroben remains the audience surrogate for this long, dark voyage, which culminates in a chilling coda. Aniara is not an easy trip to take, but it’s instructive and thought-provoking – and best of all, you get to set foot on Earth once you’re done.