In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.
To read more instalments of the Culture Crossover series click here.
"There Is No Planet B," says Mike Berners-Lee's grand thesis on averting collective planetary death. You'll find the slogan emblazoned across posters, tote bags, t-shirts, and anywhere else you might want to signal climate dread. Nevertheless, the wealthy of this earth are frantically hoping for a route off this rock - but they may be in for more than they bargain for.
That is one of the messages of Aniara, directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, a tragic space opera based on the 103-canto surrealistic sci-fi poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson from 1956. When Martinson wrote the book, the world was in the early throes of the cold war, acclimatising to a nuclear reality just a short 11 years after the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While a glance at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' doomsday clock reveals that we are closer to apocalypse by human-instigated hellfire than ever before – at two minutes to midnight, unchanged since 2018 – a different kind of eschatological anxiety feels even closer today, helped along lately by, to mention a few things, disconcerting phenomena such as: freak ice-storms in Mexico, the Siberian Arctic circle ablaze, icecaps melting at an unprecedented rate, and a fascistic clown in Brazil encouraging the Amazon rainforest to be torched for the sake of beef and soy exports.
So the thought of the last remnants of humanity taking their chances on a voyage through the void to some other new home to ruin is not as far-fetched as perhaps it once seemed – indeed, there are plenty of high-profile billionaire backers for such a scheme.
The film imagines a not too distant future where this is reality. Thousands of planet emigrants are aboard the spaceship Aniara, with its interiors reminiscent of airport members' lounges, duty-free perfume aisles and non-places like shopping malls (with the latter, quite deliberately, forming the basis of the spaceship sets).
A time-flecked claustrophobia sinks in as our passengers hear, first of all, that the journey is set to take a matter of weeks – but of course, everything starts to go wrong fairly early on and this quickly turns to years and then decades.
The 'MIMA' device the passengers rely on to keep calm – mentioned many times cryptically in Martinson's poem and illustrated here as a strange meditation space offering escapism via vivid technologically created dreamscapes – is overwhelmed and destroyed.
Aniara's passengers cope with these developments with hedonism, sex cults, murder, and suicide.
Some reviewers have suggested the capacity for such a tragedy with no provisions takes them out of the narrative arc, because surely, if we could get humans into space and colonise Mars, the people in charge would account for accidents.
But in this future, a kind of capitalism still reigns supreme, and it's hardly unimaginable that cost-cutting exercises, even for those lucky few permitted to escape in relative luxury (compared to being boiled alive on earth, for instance), could damn them all at the last hurdle.
Although certainly never ha-ha funny, the film pokes bleakly satirical fun at certain trends here on earth while our planet seems to burn – like the "all-natural air" of the ship itself, perhaps a nod to the milquetoast ineffectuality of feel-good consumer activism. Or even in the meditation room itself, where the ships' voyagers seek inner peace and solace that's extremely at odds with the reality of the situation: mindfulness in the face of biblical-style cataclysm.
The class dimension is made very clear: what remains of life on earth is rarely alluded to, although in an early scene, a character literally waves goodbye to it. Who's left down there? Both directors tell Techworld that they intended to place a lens on the class dynamics that will, save some radical last-minute change, no doubt be at play during any impending apocalypse.
Kågerman and Lilja both acknowledged during a recent press junket in east London that there is an extremely dark, ironic sense of humour that pins the film's bleaker moments together. Philosophically, it is as existentialist as they come.
There are themes in the original poem, said Lilja, of the meaning of life – and that we're all born to die.
"We didn't think of the climate crisis and then turn to Aniara, it was actually that existential theme that brought us to it in the beginning," he added.
Aniara is, in a way, capitalism distilled: but without the earth, added Kågerman – a drifting shopping centre in space, where your immediate needs may be met but existence is desolate and hollow, and your thousands of passengers are just stranded Sisyphuses without even the luxury of a boulder to push up a hill.
Actor Arvin Kananian plays the uptight ship captain. He shadowed a lieutenant in the Swedish armed forces to get into both the physical and mental posture of the character. Kananian added that the existential nature of the film provoked pertinent questions: just what kind of person would you become?
He said he was immediately attracted to the film for its "awesome script" and for the deep heritage of the poem in Sweden. "What I like about this sci-fi is that it's psychological and philosophical," he says. "It's existential sci-fi, it's not shoot-each-other sci-fi."
Without giving too much away, he agrees that there are parallels between the hapless control-freak captain trying to hold the situation together, and the PR spin of politicians who shamelessly lie through their teeth about the gravity of circumstances here on earth.
And what kind of person would Kananian become in a real-life Aniara scenario? "Honestly, I would either kill myself or take so many drugs I'd overdose," he said. "300 percent." Understandable.
"What Martinson describes in the poem," noted Lilja, "is what is the human without the earth?
"It has never happened to be disconnected from it. It is interesting to think about: even if it's technically feasible to live on a ship or on another planet, we are limited in a number of ways: maybe there's something bigger, that we cannot explain or take with us."
In his book Capitalist Realism, the British writer, academic, and cultural theorist Mark Fisher noted that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That is certainly the case on-board Aniara, with its Ryanair-esque dynamics, after capitalism has presumably ended all of us.
We have only occupied this particular planet for 400,000 years, added Kågerman, a very short time in which to practically ruin it.
"The apocalypse is today," stressed Kågerman, before I thanked the directors for their time and said goodbye.