The debut feature-length film from Swedish writng-directing duo Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, Aniara is adapted from an epic poem by Nobel Prize-winner Harry Martinson. It’s rare for any verse to be adapted for the big screen, much less as science fiction, yet the film is indeed poetic: at times bleak and cold, but beautiful to behold and more concerned with feeling than bombast.

The soil in which Aniara’s story is rooted has been trodden upon again and again in the science fiction canon. The Earth is dying and humanity is venturing outward to find a new home. Aniara, one of many ships in transit between Earth and Mars, is the size of a small city and resembles a giant floating microchip. Early in the film, the Aniara runs into space debris and is knocked off course. What was to originally be a three-week journey appears to have been extended to over a year. As more information arrives, it becomes clear that the ship may never reach Mars and cannot return to Earth.

Our guide in this is MR (Emelie Jonsson) – short for Mimaroben – a scientist on the Aniara. MR’s job is to run MIMA, a fancy futuristic virtual reality program that takes memories and transforms them into imaginary scenarios for wealthy passengers. Business is swift from the get-go, but as the future becomes bleaker and the past becomes further away, passengers flock to MIMA, which itself evolves, and as is often the case in science fiction, leads to further catastrophe.

These early parts of Aniara play-out like a bleak, Swedish side-story to WALL-E, sharing the travails of the wealthy and VR-assisted as they leave Earth in tatters and rocket through space living out their fantasies. But as MIMA breaks down and virtual pleasure-seeking turns physical, the film becomes a kind of companion to Bioshock, the classic videogame which shows the citizens of a wealthy underwater colony descending into madness following an isolating catastrophic event.

Though madness does come to the forefront, Kågerman and Lilja keep the pace very deliberate. As a result, things occasionally get monotonous for MR and others on the ship, and through them we in the audience might feel a bit bored as well. While this is intentional and effective, particularly given how successful the film’s ending is, it’s a risky move that doesn’t entirely pay off. The Aniara is tantalizing, a combination of a luxury cruise, space mission, shopping mall and a city with eternal nightlife, and there is so much to explore in this world that the slow bits feel like a wasted opportunity. But what Kågerman and Lilja and sacrifice in world-building they more than make up for in melancholy.

The idea of spending the rest of eternity in a shopping mall is terrifying and soul deadening, and Kågerman and Lilja exploit this horror in a way that owes some credit to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead while also feeling original. Aniara is in this way a horror film, as it imagines a future where objects literally mean nothing yet buying them is the only thing to do outside of eating, drinking and having sex. Those things are, of course, happening as well, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing its declining society in full view.

Aniara does justice to its poetic inspiration by aiming to elicit feeling – wonder, boredom, horror and sadness, to name a few – instead of going for science fiction mainstays like overwhelming visuals or twist-laden plot. There are surprises, but the real adventure is not through space but rather through human behavior in the face of hopelessness.

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