Let’s be honest, the Spanish speaking world is not well known for its science fiction, although there are notable exceptions. Particularly in film. Alejandro Amenábar’s superb Abres Los Ojos (1997) (needlessly remade four years later by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky) is perhaps the best known Spanish language science fiction movie in recent times. On the contrary, it is the fantastic that so often finds a voice in Spanish.
Characteristically though, it is not escapist fantasy but magic realism, which tends to have a political, philosophical or intellectual agenda, in much the same way as the best that SF has to offer.
There’s a moment at the very end of Carlos Atanes’ Proxima (2007) when you could almost be forgiven for thinking that this rare Spanish SF movie had degenerated into escapist fantasy, a fairy tale no less. You would be mistaken though. Atanes wrote and directed Proxima, and it is his script, more than anything else, that deserves recognition. The fairy tale ending in which our protagonist’s troubles are miraculously resolved through the discovery that he is The Chosen One is in fact a tongue in cheek signal that the entire movie has been a sophisticated allegory.
Proxima is the second feature length movie by independent Spanish film maker Carlos Atanes. Both Proxima and his first film, FAQ (2004), have done the rounds of the independent film festivals and garnered much praise and many awards. These are small-budget movies, filmed in digital video HDV, with special effects and extraterrestrial sets reminiscent of many a Doctor Who episode in the eighties. The acting is mixed: some of it is very good, some of it less so. But do not be put off. Atanes’s writing make up for the movies’ flaws, which are, in anycase, the virtuous flaws of a small budget. Science fiction is the genre of ideas, but increasingly it is to independent film makers such as Atanes that we must turn for novelty and intelligence.
Proxima is a quintessentially Spanish film. Which might sound like an utterly pointless and self-evident statement – it’s a Spanish movie, after all – but there is more to it than that. The movie’s protagonist, Tony (Oriol Aubets), is a classical Quixote figure. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Tony is a dreamer and a lost soul, a man of imagination out of joint with the world in which he lives. The agents of Reality – his loved ones and friends – strive to crush this point of difference in him because it does not conform to reality, and from their normalised perspective this is for his own good. His imagination has to a great extent been suppressed and finds an outlet in mindless activities (computer games). He is confused, uncertain even of what it is he knows. His business, a specialist video store, has failed and his relationship with Natalia (Karen Owens) is a lost cause for which he seems to have no interest in fighting.
He attends a science fiction convention to hear a renowned SF writer talk about his work (although Tony can’t even recall whether he has read any of them). The writer challenges mankind to prosper by breaking from its sterile reality and, to the disgust of all but Tony, immediately renounces his work as fictional rubbish, bizarrely declaring that he has found a portal to another world, orbiting the star Proxima. “Simply listen to my new book-on-CD and be delivered” he proclaims.
This triggers something in Tony. He listens to the CD and what follows is not untypical SF fare: visions, strange encounters and bizarre experiences. Has he broken through reality to something else, or is he descending into madness, his perception of reality failing him?
Ultimately Tony does escape, quite literally, fleeing the narrow confines of our world and finding himself one of many refugees trapped on an inhospitable planet orbiting Proxima. They are on the boundary of something greater but can neither proceed nor return home. Unlike Tony the others achieved their escape from the mundane world by accident, not even sure from what it is they have fled. Theirs is a despairing, escapist retreat from Reality and they’re now trapped, without hope, unable to realise the life of their imagination. Through Tony’s intervention, the refugees are able to return home, but he remains. He left by choice and there is nothing for him back home, which is too narrow for the life of his mind. His dreams forbidden by mankind.
And it is this ability to imagine worlds and realities beyond the norm that has brought him to the attention of Princes Io, future ruler of the Tanlion empire. She has selected him precisely for his imagination to be her partner and rule alongside her. He is The Chosen One!
Is this then an escapist conclusion?
On the surface it appears to be. But Tony has a wry smile as he accepts Pricess Io’s proposal, because in the end, Tony is not only Quixote, he is Cervantes. A creator of worlds. Proxima is a sophisticated allegory about the pursuit of an imaginative life. What Tony has agreed to is the realisation of his imagination – to create something new, something that takes us beyond the limits. Creativity that breaks us free from the sterility of modern existence.