1In the distant future — say, the year 3000 or so — the Earth has been decimated by war, famine, disease, social collapse, pollution, and rampant lawlessness. In short, it has become uninhabitable. But space travel, on the commercial scale, is an accomplished fact. While most people on Earth live in squalor, those who can afford it can take a spaceship to the new Earth colony on Mars. Arriving at its destination in just three weeks, the deluxe cruiser includes a casino, movie theatre, numerous restaurants, a gym, and other amenities to help the thousands of passengers on board while away their time. Such trips are commonplace, so when the Aniara takes off on a scheduled trip to Mars with a full load, no one thinks anything about it. 

However, this trip will be different. 

About a week after take-off, the ship is forced to dodge a piece of space debris. In the process, the ship’s nuclear power plant is destroyed by a huge hunk of metal, causing the reactor to start melting down. To avoid a catastrophic explosion, the captain of the ship jettisons all the remaining nuclear fuel, but there’s just one problem. With no fuel, and no way to steer, where is the Aniara going? 

Captain Chifone (Arvin Kananian), the ship’s commander, tells the passengers in a mass video announcement that the ship must wait for a passing planet’s gravitational field to scoop them up before they can start the return voyage to Earth, although the wait will take one or two years. This is more than enough to panic all the passengers. But the ship’s astronomer (Anneli Martini), an old hand who has seen it all, knows that there are no nearby planets to which to gravitate. The captain is lying. The ship is completely lost, hurtling through space at a tremendous speed on a trip to nowhere with conditions on board rapidly deteriorating. No one will survive; this is a death ship.

Such is the stark premise of Hugo Lilja and Pella Kågerman’s astonishingly assured Aniara (2018), a Swedish science fiction film based on the book-length sci-fi poem of the same name, comprising 103 verses, created by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson in 1953–1956. The poem became a sort of national passion for Swedes and was taught in school as part of the high school and college curriculum in the 50s and 60s; it also served as the basis for an opera written in 1959 by composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl and lyricist Erik Lindegren. The opera itself became a sensation and was lavishly produced as a two-hour special on Swedish national television in 1960 (available for screening here). Now, with this new version, Martinson’s poem has been given a definitive big screen interpretation.

Lilja and Kågerman’s film had limited financial resources but looks much more lavish than its roughly $2 million production cost due to the judicious use of CGI throughout to enhance production values. Blending existing locations (shopping malls, cruise ship interiors, food courts and an Olympic sized pool, among other things) with a mixture of constructed sets and miniatures, Aniara emerges as a slick, futuristic thriller, with a built-in countdown clock.

Exterior of the docking deck in Aniara

Nuclear Reactor Explodes

During the film, we check in on the Aniara’s passengers and crew on a regular basis — at first every year, then every couple of years, then 10 years, and then 24 years out in space as the last passengers, having cannibalized everything, are dying. Finally, 5,981,407 years later, the decaying husk of the spaceship reaches the planet it needed all along, one capable of supporting human life. Were the passengers still alive, it could have been a potential new home for humankind. Of course, by now, everyone is dead. 

Unlike many recent science fiction films readymade by franchise holders — the Star Wars series, the Marvel universe films, and other conventional Hollywood sci-fi fare, where spectacle rules, characterization is limited to a few wise-cracks, and the plot is merely a series of titanic battles strung together — Aniara is a deeply etched story of survival and ultimate loss, with people we will come to know and feel empathy for even as we realize we cannot even begin to fathom the enormity of their fate.

Dreaming of Earth in Aniara

Emelie Garbers (aka Emelie Jonsson) appears as the Mimaroben, a sort of facilitator for Mima, a psychic portal, memory and meditation device that dominates the ceiling of a centre chamber in the ship, absorbing the thoughts and emotions of the ship’s occupants, which soon become almost entirely negative as the vessel goes fatally off course. Unable to cope, Mima deliberately kills itself, saying “there is no protection from mankind” just before exploding in a massive electrical meltdown. The passengers on the Aniara have come to depend on Mima for emotional support and now, Mima has cut them off from any link to the remembered past — permanently. 

The Mimaroben and her lover, a pilot on the ship named Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), are both imprisoned for allowing Mima to self-destruct, even though the Mimaroben had warned Captain Chifone that Mima’s resources were being stretched to the breaking point shortly before Mima’s suicide. Released shortly thereafter, the Mimaroben creates a “beam screen,” a sort of rippling waterfall/forest/nature electronic display that surrounds the entirety of the ship, creating the illusion of a living world outside rather than the blackness of space. This illusion is a vain attempt to offer some relief for Isagel and the other passengers. 

A brief period of hope arises when the captain locates an unknown space probe nearby and declares that this probe contains enough fuel to return the ship to Earth, although he has no way of knowing this – it’s just a tactic to calm the passengers. After a year of drifting in space, the ship’s technicians successfully capture the probe, but it proves worthless. The crew has no idea what the probe is, what it does, or even how to open it up to see what’s inside. The captain insists that work continue on the probe, despite knowing that it is useless to do so. But it’s clear that the probe, or whatever it is, offers no solution.

Emelie Garbers and Bianca Cruzeiro in Aniara

With Mima’s demise, society breaks down, and cults begin to proliferate on board, leading to mass orgies and elaborate ceremonies. At one of the orgies, Isagel becomes pregnant. She delivers the child nine months later, but constantly struggles with the compulsion to murder it, delivered as it is into a world without hope. Eventually, Isagel submits to this temptation and kills the child and then herself. The Mimaroben is emotionally destroyed by this act and never really recovers. 

In the meantime, as conditions continue to worsen, the ship’s astronomer finally breaks rank with the captain and in a public meeting, blurts out that the situation is hopeless. Enraged by her outburst, Captain Chifone kills the astronomer with a single bullet to the head. No one does anything about this summary execution, and it is clear now that any pretence of social order has been abandoned. As supplies dwindle and the years pass, it is everyone for him or herself. 

At the 10-year mark, Captain Cherone presents the Mimaroben with a medal for creating the beam screen, stating to a sparse audience of survivors that they have now travelled further into space than anyone, as if their plight is some sort of heroic adventure. During the ceremony, the Mimaroben notices that the captain’s wrists are bandaged and bleeding, presumably from a suicide attempt. The Mimaroben accepts the medal without emotion; she has become a shell of herself in the wake of the ordeal, existing from day to day with no hope for the future. 

Penultimately, we see the Mimaroben and a few remaining passengers and crewmembers in the darkened Mima room, which has long since fallen into disrepair. In the 24 years since the ship left Earth, most of the ship’s crew and passengers have died. An old woman in the audience remembers the light on Earth and wonders aloud how all of this has happened. No one responds. This is the last time we will see anyone alive. Our final view of the ship is five million years in the future, when even the memory of the Aniara’s fatal voyage has probably been forgotten.

The Mima Room

Despite the film’s downbeat vision, Aniara was a commercial and critical hit in Sweden that was “pre-sold” because of the epic poem’s place as one of the country’s most cherished cultural artifacts. The film was presented at several festivals, winning Best Direction, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Visual Effects at the 2020 Guldbagge Awards in Sweden as well as Best International Science Fiction Film in 2019 at the Trieste Science Fiction Festival. 

Reviews were confined mostly to trade publications. For the most part, they were favourable. Critic Glenn Kenny praised the film as “an exemplary high-concept contemporary sci-fi film”2 in a generally favourable notice, while Teo Bugbee of The New York Times found the film “depressing,” though admitting that the film’s “commitment to bleakness feels artistically admirable.”3 Leslie Felperin in The Guardian wrote that “the Swedish writing-directing team Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja deliver a cold, cruel, piercingly humane sci-fi parable that’s both bang on the zeitgeist and yet also unnervingly original.”4

Variety’s Dennis Harvey offered one of the most perceptive reviews of the film, noting that, “though inevitably destined to frustrate genre fans who think they want something different but still require conventional action thrills . . . [the film] provides a narrative as satisfying as its conception is ambitious. This tale of a spaceship stuck wandering the cosmos after being forced off course is both impressive in its scope and intimate in its portrait of human nature under long-term duress.”5 

Commercially, however, the film was a disaster. With a production budget of €1.95 million, Aniara brought in in just $40,124 in rentals in the United States. Picked up by the small distribution company Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, the film got almost no advertising, had a desultory theatrical release, and vanished in the continuing onslaught of new releases, essentially being thrown away in the marketplace. One commenter on Reddit described the film as being “criminally obscure,” which seems quite accurate to me. Without any sort of marketing campaign, the film almost instantly passed into oblivion, essentially mimicking the plot of the film itself.

The useless space probe In Aniara

Visually, the film is a polished marvel. The camera and editorial structure of Aniara is suitably restrained, creating a world that seems real and tactile. The film never attempts to overwhelm the viewer with spectacle, and the overall sensibility on the ship is sleek and seductive. It’s a pleasure palace, at least at first. People come, people go, things happen, but nothing really changes. The shiny surfaces of the ship’s interior, the neon blast of the ship’s casino, the Spartan living quarters for staff, and the lavish suites for passengers depict the world of Aniara as one of privilege, power, money, and a rigid class system which remains skeletally intact until the last moments of the ship’s existence. 

The passengers on board live a life of purchased pleasures and bring all their worst habits with them. They gamble, drink, and pursue momentary satisfaction in casual sex, but the emptiness of life floating endlessly through space is inescapable. With Earth used up through overpopulation, wars, pollution, and global warming, there is nowhere to go but Mars, the closest semi-habitable planet. But life on Mars is no picnic. The staff members continually tell the guests that they are going to a better new world, but they all know that such platitudes simply are not true. It is cold on Mars, there is radioactivity, and nothing can grow here other than in a greenhouse; the passengers are going to live a life that can be nothing more than a postscript on a hostile planet. 

To keep the passengers happy, the crew try to maintain an attitude of perpetual optimism, even in the face of death. What was life on Earth like, anyway? It had been so long since anyone on board the ship had experienced anything like a real “Earth day” that it almost seemed like a dream. So, the passengers keep on shopping, playing the slot machines, drinking too much alcohol, swimming in the pool — anything to keep reality at bay. But there’s a terrible secret. This trip is really a one-way affair; no one makes a point of this, but it is implicit in the film’s central premise. Earth is exhausted; there is simply nothing left. Those moving to Mars will stay there permanently. They really can’t go home again. 

Sophie Winqvist’s cinematography perfectly matches the fatalistic mood that the film requires. Calm and minimalist, it is a triumph of subtle technique, using slight camera movements to focus our attention on small details or wide shots whose rigid framing mirrors the authoritarian milieu we inhabit. We see what happens on the spaceship, but nothing of the inevitable riots and deaths that must be taking place on Earth during their time in space, angry mobs, poverty, violence, pollution, disease, and complete social collapse. We, as viewers, are on the ship with the cast and crew – we know nothing of what’s happening on Earth. We will never leave the ship. We will stay here until we die. 

Aniara is linked to the work of Ingmar Bergman, Carl Th. Dreyer, and Robert Bresson, examining the innermost details of the human psyche in crisis with a calm, reflective gaze. For the most part, the camera is content to observe the cast and crew with a sympathetic yet clinical eye. During the Mima “death” sequence, the camera becomes more active, bouncing from one player to another to simulate the crush the crowd experiences in real life. However, most of the visual compositions in the film favour a distinctively stark Scandinavian style, using dark and light to create cold, precise images of almost sculptural intensity.   

Shot entirely using artificial light, Aniara betrays no memory of what sunlight might ever have looked like. These people have been on board so long that the artificial has become real. In the mall-like centre of the ship, the action never stops. Since there is no light in space, the ship itself is always illuminated. The shops, malls, bars, and casinos operate on a 24/7 basis. Anything the passengers want is at their immediate disposal. They just must have the money to pay for it. But when the supplies run out, their money is worthless. This is the literal end of a consumerist society, the ultimate accelerationist accomplishment. 

Aniara is also a film that consistently works against audience expectations. When the ship is first cast adrift, we are sure that some means of propulsion will rescue them from their plight. When the probe is discovered, we feel that certain that it must contain the fuel that will return the ship to Earth. Although we know that Earth is a charred wreck of a planet and the Mars colony awaits, we want to return anyway – even if our home has been destroyed and almost nothing is left for us there. Surely something or someone will come to our rescue. That’s the conventional narrative.

Workday Existence on the Aniara

The Captain Delivers the Bad News

When it becomes clear that there is no way out, after the cults and mass orgies have subsided, a strange calm comes over the crew and passengers. Ultimately, they accept their fate with a certain resolution, and, despite the bleak trajectory of the narrative, the film does not feel as hopeless as one would assume. The passengers and crew in the end of the film accept their fate, as a destiny that has been thrust upon them.

A modern-day Flying Dutchman story, Aniara explores what happens when humans are forced to confront the limits of their existence and survive despite insurmountable odds until they can do no more. In a way, then, it is not surprising that the film received such poor distribution, despite excellent reviews. Aniara is a film more concerned with the destruction of the Earth than the conquest of space, and it serves as a warning that civilisations are not endlessly resilient. Everything comes to an end and, right now, we are writing our last chapter.

Directors Hugo Lilja and Pella Kågerman


  1. This essay’s title comes from the 1963 Czechoslovakian feature film Voyage to the End of the Universe, directed by Jindřich Polák, which deals with somewhat similar themes. The film’s original title is Ikarie XB-1.
  2. Kenny, Glenn. Aniara (review). RogerEbert.com 17 May 2019 https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/aniara-2019.
  3. Bugbee, Teo. “Aniara Review: A One-Way Ticket into the Abyss,” The New York Times 16 May 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/16/movies/aniara-review.html#:~:text=At%20times,%20the%20commitment%20to,even%20for%20the%20bravest%20voyagers.
  4. Felperin, Leslie. “Aniara review – An Eerily Mesmerising Outer-Space Odyssey,” The Guardian 28 August 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/28/aniara-review.
  5. Harvey, Dennis. “Film Review: Aniara,” Variety 23 April 2019 https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/ankara-review-1203194060/.

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

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