Is Space Travel Boring?

The mediocre 2019 blockbuster Ad Astra is a fairly derivative deep space story filled with pseudo-introspective pap — a journey that’s 2.7 billion miles long, but only about an inch deep. If you never saw it, don’t bother. If you did and you hated it as much as I did, try detoxing with Aniara, an incredible 2018 Swedish science fiction film based off of an epic poem of the same name written in 1956.

[minor spoilers follow]

At the beginning of its three-week journey to Mars, a colossal space vessel the size of a minor city — and filled with as many people — gets knocked off-course by a stray object. The crew dumps the ship’s fuel in order to avert a total disaster, but they are left with no ability to steer. Adrift in space, their only hope is to come close to a celestial object with enough mass and gravity to allow them to slingshot around it and return to their intended destination. Thanks to a robust system of algae-culture, they can generate enough food and oxygen to survive, so they can proceed to higher stages in the hierachy of needs: making a life in a place they only expected to be for a few weeks.

One character notes that their lives aboard the ship are perhaps not all that different from where they were going. Nor are they all that different from where they came from: the interior feels like a seamless blend of cruise ship, Chuck-E-Cheese, shopping mall food court, and airport hotel. But the ship also contains a semi-sentient piece of technology called Mima that allows people to enter a trance state in which they pass out of their bodies and slip inside their prior memories. Under the Mima’s glow, they slump to the carpeted floor, face-down, their heads nestled inside of foam cylinders.

Aniara follows the story of the worker who tends to the maintenance of the Mima and cares for the people who use it. They are all fleeing Earth, which is becoming uninhabitable — burning up, in fact, as we observe through the passengers’ and crews’ physical and mental scars. The care worker is never named in the film, but instead is simply referred to as the Mimarobe or the MR. The Mima must sort out the trauma embedded in the passengers’ memories in order to provide them a euphoric escape, but due to overuse the Mima soon breaks down — and the Mimarobe becomes a convenient scapegoat.

And then the movie really gets started.

As the passengers stare out into the abyss of the universe, they contemplate the frightening prospect of living and potentially dying aboard the ship. The abyss stares back into them, to be sure, and into us. Aniara‘s storytelling and well-measured pace infuses its characters’ existential dread with a remarkable familiarity. Inside of our own “little bubble in the glass of Godhead,” amidst both joys and tragedies, we too must forge a meaningful life together during the time we have.