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Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // August 20, 2019
List Price: $13.49 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 9, 2020 | E-mail the Author
In theory, the spacecraft Aniara is just one of many transport ships, designed for a three-week journey from Earth to Mars. The inside of the ship functions something like a combination of a hotel, mall, and airplane, filled with escalators and shopping centers and shared living quarters. Just before the ship completes its short trip, however, a malfunction results in the ship dumping its fuel tanks and veering off course. Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) assures the passengers that they will simply use the gravity of the next planet to turn the ship around, but as weeks stretch into months, it becomes clear that they are drifting with no end in sight. Mimaroben, or MR (Emelie Jonsson) has a simple job: serve as an instructor and a guide for the ship's Mima program, a virtual reality computer that allows the passengers to experience Earth from their memories, but as the society on board the craft begins to crumble, her life takes a drastic turn.

Aniara is built around a potentially compelling idea: the ship is an obvious parallel to Earth itself, with society forming and reforming based on dwindling resources and an increasing amount of hopelessness. At times, the movie explores this effectively, but writer/directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja use the slow-burn nature of the story to poor effect, dragging the story out in uninteresting places while skipping past other opportunities that could have offered more unique and interesting directions for the story to go.

At first, it appears that the film is going to focus on the Mima computer. MR seems to struggle to get people interested in experiencing what the program can do, standing outside the front door making a kind of sales pitch to passerby. However, she quickly becomes overwhelmed by renewed interest when the captain first announces they've been knocked off course, and estimates a delay of no more than two years. There is probably a whole movie in the notion of people using a simulation as their only way of staying sane in an unexpected situation, but the number of people and the complexity of their memories eventually overloads the system with ugly imagery of chaos and destruction, and when MR's request to let the AI rest for a month is denied, the system is destroyed and MR ends up temporarily jailed for insubordination.

The film then shifts into its second major story. MR is attracted to one of the ship's other captains, Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), and when MR is jailed, Isagel is jailed along with her. When they are released, years later, because the ship needs more staff, they are a couple, and much of the film's running time is devoted to their relationship. Both Jonsson and Cruzeiro are excellent in their roles, and they have a great chemistry with one another, but it's clear even at the start where Kagerman and Lilja are taking things. Without spoiling more of the film's story, there are two major developments that occur during their story, and yet the more fertile ground would seem to be the period after both developments have come to pass. Within the metaphor of trying to eke out existence despite potentially being doomed, Isagel's later behavior is explained, but it would be more interesting to see MR wrestle more with whether or not Isagel was, if not right, the more practical person in their unique scenario.

In setting up the story of MR and Isagel, the film introduces a tangent about cults that disappears once it's served its purpose, and there is another tangent a bit later involving what the crew hopes is a refueling pod that never really gets paid off. There is a warmth to the scenes with Isagel and MR that is greatly appreciated, and yet this material, or perhaps the continued appearances of The Astronomer (Anneli Martini), feel as if they're coming at the expense of other opportunities. As the film goes into its final fifteen minutes, there are so many opportunities to take the story in an existential, philosophical direction, and yet Kagerman and Lilja are sprinting to the finish line. The duo are fine filmmakers in a technical sense -- the movie looks fantastic despite what must have been a limited budget, and their approach is impressively disciplined. It's just a shame that it's also derivative, with Aniara taking an unusual premise to disappointingly predictable places.

The Blu-ray
Magnet Releasing has offered Aniara on US Blu-ray with one of those stylish but completely artificial covers, an image of a spaceship originating from Earth drifting off to the side, surrounded by a field of wreckage. The image conveys the plot effectively but feels so much like a digital illustration that it doesn't really give the viewer any sense of what the film itself could be like. On the back cover, there is an image of Emilie Jonsson that probably could've been moved to the front cover to create a more compelling overall design. The one-disc release comes in a Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
magnolia brings Aniara to the US under their Magnet Pictures label, armed with a 2.39:1 1080p AVC image and a Swedish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. I cannot find any technical information about how the film was shot, but my belief is that this is a digital production with an artificial layer of film grain added to it, presumably to make the image look less "digitally clean" and provide some texture. I cannot say whether the effect is applied accurately from a photographic standpoint, but it works psychologically, serving to ground some of the CGI visuals, and perhaps make the film feel more timeless. Colors are bright and vivid, and fine detail is excellent. If there is one issue with the disc, it's that some of the space shots and a scene in a bunk that starts out pitch-black and slowly brightens have noticeable banding. The audio is impressively immersive, with the great rumbling of the ship always providing a sense of scale, and other surreal and futuristic effects used with skill. The score, by Alexander Berg, also sounds excellent throughout. There is also an English dub, also in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, as well as English subtitles, English narrative subtitles (for use with the dub), English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras
Three featurettes are included, all functionally labeled, all on the technical/post-production side, and all produced by Brooklyn Brewery for the 2019 Goteberg Film Festival. "Visual Effects" (2:53) speaks to Andreas Wicklund at his home about the challenges of the visual effects needed for Aniara, including lighting in space and drawing inspiration from unusual sources. "Production Design" (2:33) reaches out to Maja-Stina Asberg about designing the ship and her thoughts on the ideas behind her choices, as well as the things she and the filmmakers tried to avoid. Finally, "Sound Design" (2:23) catches up with Calle Wachtmeister in the studio, who discusses the directors' evolving view of how space ought to sound, and the value of improvising when creating sounds. There is also a conceptual design/art gallery.

Trailers for Body at Brighton Rock, The Quake, Higher Power, The Guilty, and promos for the Charity Network and axs tv play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Aniara is also included.

Aniara is a respectable effort, especially on the technical front, but it's a shame that Kagerman and Lilja couldn't think of more interesting areas to explore as the journey of the ship stretches on into an uncertain future. The disc, similarly, scores impressive technical marks, and the supplements, while brief, are charming. Rent it.

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