The Earth is scorched and unliveable. Humanity is moving to Mars. You board an enormous ship which will take you there, along with hundreds of other passengers – ordinary people just like you. It’s like going on a cruise: the ship caters to your needs and desires with restaurants, shops, clubs; even simulations of a serene Earth, from the ship’s “Mima” computer.
Then, the ship is thrown off course. The pilots are unable to steer. You are drifting away into endless space. What are you to do?
That’s the premise of Aniara, a new film adapted from the Swedish poem of the same name by Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson. It’s an ambitious film which draws on science fiction’s rich history of tackling big questions about our species. I posed some questions of my own to the writer-directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, as well as actor Arvin Kananian.
PELLA KÅGERMAN & HUGO LILJA
Am I right in thinking that the poem Aniara is taught in schools in Sweden?
PK: I think our parents’ generation was forced to read it. I don’t think we were and I don’t think they are today, but everyone basically knows about it. Many know about it, but I actually think few have read the whole thing, because it’s written in verse and it’s very… it’s not an easy read. It’s a slow read and I think you have to be in a special mood to really get into it.
How long have you wanted to adapt it into a film?
PK: I think it was over ten years ago that I went to see one of the plays that had been based on it with my grandmother in Stockholm. We were really close when I was growing up – reading a lot and also role-playing the different books that we read. And the day after we watched the play, she had a severe stroke, and she ended up in a big hospital. Then I started to read Aniara aloud to her, and as she was getting better we started to role-play it. We pretended that the hospital was this big spacecraft, the Aniara, lost in space, and the patients were passengers, and the doctors were the crew. And she was the Mima, the AI on board. That’s when I really felt like: I get this poem now. And it’s just brutally true, on so many levels.
So the poem is personal to you.
PK: Very personal. A personal understanding of it, at least.
“Brutal” is definitely something that comes across in the film. Do you think the film is bleak, or pessimistic?
HL: It is of course bleak and pessimistic. But we think the optimism comes from the fact that we’re not on Aniara yet. That’s what we want to convey. That’s what we like about the story – there are quite a few science fiction films that begin with Earth ending, and people having to leave Earth. But in the end they almost always find a new home, or build a new one, by some technological miracle. Aniara is really quite unique in that the premise is: if we destroy Earth, we’re fucked. We can recreate life for a while, but it won’t be worth it.
So would you see it as a warning, a cautionary tale?
PK: Definitely a warning. I think Harry Martinson described it as a warning even back in the ‘50s when he wrote it, but now it has become even more real. Now I don’t even think it’s a warning – it’s a scream.
In the ‘50s it was a nuclear threat, with the Cold War and the Space Race. Nowadays, what’s the scream about?
PK: It’s about the Climate Crisis. We all have to learn that this is what the apocalypse looks like; that we’re living in it now. Cold War is maybe easier to depict in a way because you have the bomb, then there’s an explosion, and we can recognise it. Whereas the Climate Crisis works on so many different levels, and it’s not really visual. In Sweden it’s like, “oh, well, it’s finally nice here in summertime, we don’t have to go to Greece.” It doesn’t feel bad in Sweden – although the forests were burning like crazy last summer. But it’s not how you’re used to it looking in films. There, films have been wrong – the apocalypse is more like Swedes being in shorts in their home country.
In the film the Mima [the ship’s onboard AI computer] is kind of mysterious; we never fully understand what it is. What is it to you and what purpose does it serve?
HL: The Mima is a sort of AI, but has become in some way more conscious than the humans. And they use it to escape back to their good memories of the destroyed Earth; some comforting images.
PK: We see it as a mix of yoga and Instagram, maybe [laughs]. A mix of memory, nostalgia, escapism.
Right – the scenes we see of people inside the Mima definitely don’t seem like actual memories. They’re too beautiful. And in those scenes: were the shots of the reeds in the water a Solaris  reference?
PK: Yes! It was. I’m so happy that you mention it. One of the editors with this project worked with Tarkovsky on The Sacrifice , and he told us that Tarkovsky was actually very displeased with his shot of seaweed. Because the whole idea had been for him to shoot frogs. So he had brought – not thousands, but plenty of frogs there, and put them into the water, and they were swimming along. Then they put the lights on and they all disappeared. And it’s so funny that something we feel is so iconic, and we want to pay homage to it, is something that he himself saw as a failure; as a shot lacking the frogs.
I didn’t know that! That’s interesting, because the seaweed looks so brilliant.
PK: Yeah, I think it’s so brilliant. I’d been analysing it: why I’d felt like the image is so strong; the world underwater… I don’t know – I could never put my finger on it. I felt that he was really onto something. And then he was onto something else [laughs]. But I think that’s probably the case with a lot of films and art.
You play the captain of the Aniara. It’s a character who starts off as a very standard captain-of-the-ship type, and then becomes, due to the circumstances, something that I don’t think he expected, or that anyone expected – and he becomes an antagonist in a lot of ways. How much do you sympathise with him as a person?
I sympathise with his way of handling things, because he gets thrown into that situation. We decided he comes from a military background, and this is his way of coping; this is how he thinks. He always makes decisions for the platoon, or for his soldiers, which is now the population of the Aniara. I don’t know if I can respect his decisions at all; I feel like the weight on his shoulders made him act a little psycho. But I could sympathise with the way he approaches the massive responsibility that’s thrown on him. But then he takes it way too far. He effectively becomes the ruler of a country – because this is their world now.
It’s interesting because in the whole history of humankind, no one has ever been in his position.
Yeah. Imagine you go on a cruise ship, and the captain there is just a captain, almost like a bus driver. That’s the way we see them. But then all of a sudden that happens, and he’s the ruler, the king.
In effect, he becomes a totalitarian dictator.
Did you see political resonance in the character in that sense?
Yeah, I tried to. Something that I see in our politicians today – the Borises, the Trumps, the Putins – it feels like they know something. They have a secret; they’ve been in a meeting where they’ve found out some fucked up shit, and they’re just not acting in an honest way about it. They’re not including us, they’re just making decisions ‘for our benefit’. And that’s kind of what [the captain] did.
The character is also in the poem. How much, if at all, did you draw on that?
The poem has one whole page that describes the captain. And it describes the captain as super dark. Like, the Devil. Since I had to play a real person, who makes real decisions – albeit bad decisions – I had to believe in some kind of good in him. So I used [the poem] as some kind of coat of being able to go to a very evil place, but then I used the script and our preparation and backstory to understand the way he thinks; the overly pragmatic way he approaches a problem.
The characters make reference to the pilots in general having a different mindset to everyone else. I’m interested to hear more about what that mindset is, and how they get to that mindset.
They’re super pragmatic. They think in numbers and switches and how things work. Like when you talk to a physician compared to when you talk to a psychologist, or something. Maybe those are shitty references, but you know what I mean. They don’t go outside of the pragmatic world – they think that’s child’s play. The Mima – that’s stupidity for the captain. I think there’s fear behind that, but for him that’s just stupid, just child’s play.
I guess being such a pragmatist, once they drift off, then the Aniara is the whole world.
Exactly. That’s effectively what happens. Aniara becomes the world and he has to take care of it. So [the passengers] have their sex cults, their drugs; he has to make sure everything works. The pilot [Isagel, played by Bianca Cruzeiro] kind of succumbs to let go of that pragmatism quite early, but he feels like her leadership role is lost in all that.
Having said that, at the end the he does try to commit suicide, at least. What is it that leads to that?
He grows more and more lonely, right? He has basically no one, except for the superintendent. We believed that they might have had a romantic relationship. When he dies, basically the captain dies. The only person he has any relationship with dies – that’s what triggers him to commit suicide. After that, the captain just goes on automatic captain-speaking. But he’s already dead. And he’s been trying physically to die.
And you can see that in the last scene, where he’s handing out the medal to MR [Emelie Jonsson].
No one’s listening. He’s not listening to himself, really. He’s automatic.
ANIARA is released in cinemas and on digital HD from 30th August