Aniara (2019)

Among the big-city dwellers who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, Claire Denis’s High Life proved to be one of the year’s more divisive films. That work’s stubbornly esoteric allegories about climate change & humanity’s isolation in an uncaring universe could either register as captivating or exhaustively boring depending on its audience’s sensibilities – an effect Denis only amplified by rooting the story in prolonged, systemic cruelty. Even the Swampflix crew was divided on the film’s merits, with Boomer filing a negative review for it the same week CC & I sang its praises on the podcast. In some ways, I wish that same awe-and-vitriol divide had been afforded to this year’s other brutal space travel allegory, Aniara, which shares a lot of thematic ground with High Life when considered in the abstract. Instead, Aniara has been suffering the much worse fate of not being talked about at all. Ever since it premiered at TIFF last year, Aniara has been damned with faint praise as a decent-enough, 3-star sci-fi yarn, which naturally stirs up a lot less critical conversation than the wild, alienating swings of Denis’s film. That’s a shame, since it covers similar thematic territory as the more divisive, attention-grabbing work in a way I think a lot more people would be receptive to. And it’s just sitting right there on Hulu, largely unwatched & undiscussed.

Maybe it’s only genre nerds who’ve spent hundreds of hours watching SyFy Channel reruns of venerated series like Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica who would be greatly excited by Aniara’s melancholy space travel mood. It shares existential climate change themes with High Life, but its story is much more linear & traditionally structured than its arthouse counterpart. At least, it appears that way in the early goings. As the boundaryless void of outer space and the meaningless of time for those drifting across it becomes increasingly apparent, the movie gradually blossoms into its own blissfully bizarre object. No matter how familiar the film’s storytelling structure & spaceship setting may first appear, it’s ultimately a surreal, existential descent into despair that processes the horrors of climate change through a deep-space travel narrative. It features a bisexual female scientist as the lead, dabbles in the psychedelia of futuristic space-cult religions, and argues that maybe bringing new children into a dying world isn’t necessarily the best idea – a tough, but worthwhile topic given our current path to extinction. No film that embodies all those potentially alienating elements should be brushed off as “conventional,” no matter how familiar its tone & setting might feel to sci-fi television storytelling ritual. It’s just that it’s more adventurous & ambitious in its ideas than it is in its formal structure, which could be said about plenty sci-fi classics of the past.

A massive spaceship ferrying a routine transportation haul of human passengers from Earth to Mars is unexpectedly thrown off-course by space junk debris. The captain of the ship informs his horrified passengers that their trip will now take months instead of hours. Those months turn into years as it becomes increasingly unclear whether the ship will ever return home at all. The organic supplies that generate fresh food & oxygen gradually start to rot. Drifting through space with no hope or purpose, the passengers search for higher meaning & easy escapism in their severely limited environment. This mostly entails visits to Mima – a machine that broadcasts holodeck-style images of Nature into the minds of its users. Even before they were stranded on this spaceship, this imagery belonged to a nostalgic past before Earth was wrecked by climate change. Through Mima, it’s now twice removed from its original source, and becomes an addictive tool for mental escapism in what’s essentially a prison ship. Of course, this shipwide abuse of Mima is not sustainable in the long run; the demands of the passengers far outweigh the supply. As the passengers search for other, grander ways to find meaning in their endless drift into the void of deep space (and wrestle with the morality of bringing newborns into such a nihilistic environment), we experience daily life on the titular ship through the eyes of Mima’s operator – who suffers the full spectrum of love, loss, labor, and search for purpose while her years adrift endlessly accumulate.

I’d readily recommend Aniara to any & all sci-fi nerds who’ve ever gotten hooked on a long-running space travel series. I’d especially recommend it to those who were intrigued but frustrated by High Life earlier this year. Personally, both films hit me in about the same way on a thematic level, but I found it easier to buy into the linear, structured drama of Aniara on an emotional one (not least of all due to a stunner of a lead performance from Emelle Jonsson). I appreciated High Life more for its arthouse craft, whereas Aniara left me gutted and terrified for our inevitable near-future doom as a species. Both works are worthy of attention & discussion, even if you end up falling in love with neither.

-Brandon Ledet

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Apollo 11 (2019)

I’ve never had much personal interest in the Space Race as a cinematic subject. Outer space itself? Sure, that’s where alien beasts and blackhole portals to Hell are found, so I’m always down the visit that arena on the big screen. It’s more the real-life Cold War story of Patriotic Americans beating Communists to the Moon to plant our own flag there first that generally bores me. Maybe it’s a question of over-familiarity. Titles like The Right Stuff, First Man, Apollo 13, and Hidden Figures are only the tip of the Space Race media iceberg, usually inspiring me to file away the genre completely in the same Dad Stuff category as Westerns, war movies, and James Bond films, none of which I have much enthusiasm for. I was still somehow lured in by the recent documentary Apollo 11, even though it’s a back-to-basics approach to telling this exact same story yet again. Assembling & restoring previously unseen 70mm footage from the NASA archives that documented the first successful mission to the Moon fifty years ago (apparently NASA has their own myth-making production company like WWE Studios & NFL Films?), Apollo 11’s only gimmick in refreshing the Space Race narrative is that it has no gimmick at all. It’s elegantly straightforward in its presentation of documentary footage from the historic event, assuming the audience is already familiar enough with the context of its importance to not need narration or talking-head interviews to walk us through it. That elegance does help cut down on the potential tedium of telling the same Space Race story yet again (as well as lessening the usual American jingoism that accompanies it), but that’s not what lured me to the theater for this particular Space Race rehash. What really had me on the hook was its promise of an irresistible combination you usually only see in science fiction: outer space imagery + analog synths.

The imagery on display is, itself, incredible. The restoration makes it feel as crisp & as vivid as it would if it were filmed just yesterday instead of a half a century ago and, since NASA was smart enough to document itself, the level of intimacy in access is literally unsurpassable. Of course, that’s a huge boon once the cameras are launched into space, but I was surprised to discover myself equally fascinated by the footage they captured on Earth. Apollo 11 is just as much an act of people-watching & a late-60s fashion look book as it is an outer space travelogue – from the Norman Rockwell families who camped out to watch the titular mission launch to the thousands of NASA workers who helped make that mission possible. The outer space footage is more of a one-of-a-kind affair, though, especially as it was paired with the sweet analog tones of the Moog synthesizer. Composer Matt Morton prides himself on crafting the score entirely with analog equipment that predates the 1969 mission. His ominous Moog tones combine beautifully with the 70mm outer space footage, especially in a proper theatrical setting. And since the movie has an overt fetish for gear of all sorts – analog musical instruments, NASA switchboards, spacecraft components, the cameras themselves – the logistics of capturing the footage you’re watching becomes just as much a part of the story as the logistics of flying to the Moon in the first place, to the point where there’s strong case to nominate Buzz Aldrin for Best Cinematography at next year’s Oscars. Apollo 11 may not have alien space-beasts, portals to alternate Hell dimensions, or episodes of murderous space-madness, but it has everything else you could want from space travel sci-fi: elaborate production design, memorable costuming, eye-searing visuals, technical mumbo jumbo, and an ominous synth soundtrack, all in a real-life document.

My favorite sequence in Apollo 11 is what I like to think of as the sex scene. After spending a night separated, one piece resting on the moon while the other orbits above, the two components of the Apollo 11 spacecraft reunite in a complex re-docking maneuver. The sequence is filmed from both units’ POV, as if the space ships are longingly staring into each other’s eyes as they gradually lock their open mouths together for an airtight kiss. Meanwhile, tender keyboard flourishes score the ritual, recalling cinematic romances like the Counting Crows escalator scene in Cruel Intentions (which recently enjoyed its own theatrical anniversary, just as significant as the moon landing’s). You don’t get that kind of patience or intimacy or ethereal beauty in most Space Race docs, mostly because they let redundant talking-head interviews get in the way of the good stuff. Apollo 11 is comprised entirely of the good stuff. It’s incredible that a film had to go all the way back to the story’s bare-bones origins to find a way to make it compelling again.

-Brandon Ledet