You know those news stories about gargantuan cruise ships marooned mid-ocean, the passengers’ panic rising as the beach towels and buffet tables run out? Now imagine that happening in outer space, and the nearest port is light years away. “Aniara,” a provocative if sometimes pokey Swedish science fiction drama, expends a multimillion-kroner budget and a large and milling cast on a what-if story with stinging allegorical undercurrents.
The film’s two writer-directors, Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, have adapted an epic 1956 poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson — no, I had no idea, either — into a slow-motion disaster movie. With deft visual strokes, they give us the setup: a sprawling spacecraft departing an environmentally toxic Earth for a three-week trip to new colonies on Mars; a near-collision with space junk that sends the ship off course; a frenzied flushing of fuel tanks to avert explosion. Then the drift kicks in.
The film’s central character, a shy midlevel ship’s employee referred to by her title, Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), at first knows as little about the predicament’s nature as the passengers, but her roommate, a surly old astronomer (Anneli Martini), sees the truth. While the captain (Arvin Kananian) smoothly assures everyone they’re only a few years away from rescue, the astronomer predicts an open-ended floating, possiblyforever.
What happens when your desert island is a 3-mile tin can holding thousands of people? Watchful and fairly perverse, “Aniara” takes this question as its plot. The passengers are initially lulled by the pronouncements from the bridge, but days turn into months, months turn into years, and social conventions and mechanical parts start to break down. Mimaroben runs an artificial-intelligence bliss-out room called MIMA — it feeds off the memories of individual users — that gets more and more crammed as people try to crowd out grim reality. Eventually there are riots and suicides, ecstatic hedonism and the founding of religious cults. Mimaroben finds herself drawn to a self-possessed ship’s pilot named Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), and their relationship grows, deepens, and frays as time yawns on.
The directors opt for detachment over melodramatics, which makes “Aniara” a petri-dish experiment in more ways than one. It holds a viewer, though, if only because of our innate curiosity about what might actually happen if the human animal were left trapped in the maze over a very long haul. Parts of the film aren’t pretty because people don’t always act in pretty ways, and the speculation that such an event might create its own hermetically sealed reality, one increasingly distorted to our eyes, is intriguing, if not especially deep. It all plays out like a “Big Brother” reality show with 5,000 participants and no Big Brother.
Toward the end, the film vastly widens its scope in ways to send an audience pondering into the night. It’s a solid sci-fi punch line and you may realize that everything leading to it has actually (and almost merely) been a setup. If so, “Aniara” may be the coolest, costliest, most dystopian shaggy-dog story ever filmed.
Written and directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, based on a poem by Harry Martinson. Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro. At Kendall Square. 107 minutes. Unrated (as R: an orgy scene, some language). In Swedish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.