Proxima is the second feature-length film from Spanish director Carlos Atanes. Carlos Atanes had previously appeared with FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions (2004), a dystopian science-fiction film that sat just between a profusion of interesting imagery, a satirical sense of humour and having inhaled just a little too much of the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague.
Proxima is certainly a quantum leap outwards from the things that Atanes was starting to explore in FAQ. It’s rather difficult to sum up what Proxima is in a nutshell. Perhaps if one imagines something akin to a conceptual collision between Free Enterprise (1999) about the lives of science-fiction fans and the reality-bending works of author Philip K. Dick – Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. I was also reminded of the largely forgotten Nigel Kneale tv series Kinvig (1981) about a UFO fan who discovers that his neighbour may be an alien, but cannot be sure if he is not imagining it all.
The first section of Proxima sets Oriol Aubets up as an all-too-familiar science-fiction fan who laments the world’s lack of understanding about his particular passion. Like Free Enterprise, this seems to be arcing towards the theme of the fan who is eventually forced by the pressures of the mundane world to give up adolescent dreams and accept adulthood’s responsibilities. Like Free Enterprise, Carlos Atanes also peppers the film with a number of references and in-jokes about his favourite science-fiction films and tv series. There are some really cute bits – the final line of Blade Runner – “Too bad she won’t live. But then again who does?” – offered up as eulogy to the closing of the videostore, not before the requisite debate over it only being the last line depending on which version of the film one sees; a debate as to whether Star Wars (1977) correctly counts as science-fiction or fantasy; and a scene on the alien planet with Oriol Aubets and Manuel Masera communicating across the language barrier with the hummed themes to Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Atanes even flashes his knowledge of obscure films by name-dropping Segundo de Chomon – the early Spanish silent filmmaker, a contemporary of Georges Melies, who made a number of Melies-like ventures into the science-fiction, fantasy and special effects.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Proxima is the character of the celebrated science-fiction author who suddenly announces that he is giving up writing fiction because he has started contacting aliens. This has clearly been modelled on real-life author Philip K. Dick – note the homonymic similarity between the two names – Philip K. Dick/Felix Cadecq. In 1974, Dick had a strange hallucinatory experience where he believed that he was receiving visions about the universe from a possibly alien pink light that told him things before they happened. This caused Dick to give up writing for a time in an attempt to explain this baffling phenomenon. [For more detail see discussion of the documentary The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (2000)].
And aside from that, Proxima is a very Philip K. Dick-ian film with its abrupt conceptual twists and shifting revelations about what is real. After the various mundane establishing scenes at the store and convention, there is the wonderfully eerie scene where Oriol Aubets strips off in his blackened-out store and listens to the Felix Cadecq cd and then suddenly finds himself floating in space. And moreover to return to the world and suddenly finds his best friend calling him to show him an internet video broadcast where he is now speaking in favour of communication with the aliens. The scenes joining the cult in the abandoned church come with Carlos Atanes’s dry sense of humour – like when Oriol Aubets is given a pressure suit to put on and protests that all he is given is an empty cardboard box, only to be told that it is advanced technology. And then in the next of the reality-bending twists Aubets is abducted by girlfriend Karen Owens and handed over to cult deprogrammer Abel Folk who patiently explains how all of Aubets’ beliefs regarding the aliens are false ones that come from watching too much science-fiction.
In the next section, Oriol Aubets manages to escape imprisonment by inserting the Felix Cadecq cd and mentally transporting himself into space. In an extraordinarily lovely shot see Aubets walking on a digitally rendered moon and then suddenly being picked up and taken aboard an alien ship made of rock that looks like a giant rotating potato dotted with tiny windows, which then takes off, gently rotating as it passes Jupiter and heads into the depths of space. It is during these scenes that Carlos Atanes suggests something of the journey through the stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the scenes with the Discovery pod moving across eerily alien terrain. Atanes has also reunited with Xavier Tort, who was the lead actor and composed the score for FAQ, and Tort delivers a score that reminds strongly of the similar atonal choruses in 2001.
Oriol Aubets is then placed on an alien planet – in fact an open-cast mine in Andalucia, Spain. But this has been quite effectively altered to become an alien world with pink rivers, coloured skies and more rock spaceships drifting overhead like giant inverted wedding cakes. It is in these scenes that Proxima is at its most thoughtful. I was reminded of something of Andrei Tarkovsky’s existential science-fiction in films like Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) with its image of a group of humans stranded on an alien planet and left drifting in a philosophical circle in the face of the vast and inexplicable, wanting to know why they are.
The end section of the film has Oriol Aubets being rescued by an exotic alien princess and carried away to the stars. It feels like a fanboy’s fantasy version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – where Steven Spielberg imagines a wondrous universe where magical aliens will come to transport the child-like and pure of heart away with them, Carlos Atanes fantasizes a more teenage male one – where hot alien babes will come to confirm the lives of science-fiction fans who feel ignored and underappreciated by the mundane world and tell them that their dreams and imagination can open the entire universe up. It’s an ending that seems at one naively charming and a giant shaggy dog variant on Free Enterprise.
Richard Scheib, Moria: Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review
Far-reaching indie film combines many great ideas with courage and intelligence: "Proxima" is an endearingly off-beat sci-fi film whose odder moments owe to the visionary can-do determination of Spanish underground director Carlos Atanes. His only previous feature work "FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions" (2004) was a bold art-film exploration of a matriarchal dystopia, but it didn’t prepare me for the sweeping reach of "Proxima", which dares to be called epic despite a low-budget production that relied on volunteerism and luck. Much of the grandeur comes from taking the familiar set-up of a misunderstood dreamer, an overgrown fanboy who must surely be crazy to think that the universe could be calling him, and then subverting the genre’s expectations for comeuppance to actually transport the viewer to the stars along with our everyman. Not only do we get alien landscapes and spaceships, we get them in weird biomorphic forms that continue to challenge sci-fi standards, as if to reinforce that famous understatement from Sir Arthur Eddington that "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine." Plus, the payoff comes on the heels of plot twists and identity doubletakes that would make proud that great paranoid reality-questioning messiah of post-modern scifi, Philip K. Dick, who is the apparent aim of homage for the reminiscently named character Felix Cadecq. Dick had a period of mystical contact with a pink light beam of higher extraterrestrial origins that drove him to temporarily suspend his usual scifi writing and produce an 8000 page manuscript of bizarre theological theorizing. Unlike Cadecq, Dick eventually returned to his fiction and the world did not end, but then this tribute is just one of many genre references that show the director to be well-versed in his pop underground culture as well as having a good sense of humor.
Over-eagerness to cover the territory might be faulted, as the film does tend to lurch from one mood to the next; Tony comes from the funny misfit nerd territory of "Galaxy Quest" (1999) and "Free Enterprise" (1998), but then we see "Altered States" (1980) style sensory deprivation trips in the blackened room that Tony makes to find himself floating among the stars, followed by the Dickian revelation that Tony has already made alien truth videos that he can’t even remember, leading to the freak show in the abandoned church of apparent escapees from a David Lynch film (the director seems to have a soft spot for such ensembles), which is bust up by the cult deprogrammers who bring the hard X-Files touch to the UFO conspiracists, only to jettison Earthly angst for cosmic existential crisis in the pits of Proxima which evoke the mystical desolation of a Tarkovsky film like "Stalker" (1979), and then wrapping up with the religious fantasy rapture of a fanboy lifted to his alien goddess in a cross between serious ascendence flicks like "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), and little known gems of UFO culture satire like "Kinvig" (1981) and "UFOria" (1985).
Of course you don’t have to get all the touchstones to enjoy the film, and ultimately "Proxima" defies genre classification anyway. "Kinvig" might well be the closest plot cousin on the surface, with its repair shop dreamer who experienced astral projections to Venus where he received covert instructions from a shapely alien babe who might be just in his head, but that was satiric comedy by a famous British fantasy screenwriter who ironically considered metaphysics to be hokum. The director of "Proxima" is a genuine explorer of fringe storytelling, and while his occult mechanics could use a little fine tuning (escapists can only wish that going out-of-body, not to mention actual teleportation, was as easy as just waiting in the dark for something strange to happen), he’s not afraid of connecting the concepts in all sincerity (I loved the scene of Tony bonding with the foreigner on Proxima who says he got there by being a whirling dervish).
The film may not be as transformative as it might aspire (the website audaciously calls it "the last science fiction movie"), in part because the tone is too old-school dark to inspire actual wonder for contact like a film like, say, "Contact" (1997). There’s no explanation for why the Earth is being invaded and destroyed by the same family as Tony’s savior princess, whose ship frankly looks too un-cozy for my fantasies of transcendence with a babe. And there are flaws in pacing to be tolerated, such as a lack of establishing shots for the church and the unexpectedness of Tony’s cartoonish recapture by the deprogrammers. Deleted scenes indicate that more transitions were planned including a chase or two, but these failed to shoot properly. This is after all extremely independent filmmaking, with no time or budget for major re-takes or re-thinks. In the extras, one producer admits she thought they’d only get as far as making the documentary about how they tried and failed, like Terry Gilliam’s "Don Quixote". So really it’s a triumph that so many segments did succeed, including the convincing sci-fi convention that was filmed at a college for plenty of extras, and the otherworldly Andalusian quarry. You’d never even know that torrential rains seriously threatened the latter location, and ultimately worked to bring out the colors of the rocks. Even having escaped a landslide, the actors risked themselves with exposure to toxic mining mud and water (please guys, next time you don’t need to swim in the stuff to tell a story, it can actually distract a concerned viewer like me to imply that you endangered your health just for a scene).
So if you haven’t guessed by now, there’s an astonishing amount of everything that went into this film, from bold ideas to filmmaking chutzpah to dumb luck. For the sophomore effort of a young self-styled director, "Proxima" is truly an unexpectably outstanding work, and the sci-fi community deserves to know it better. Hopefully, internet distribution and word of mouth will get "Proxima" into the right hands and minds as the years go by.
Carl J. Schroeder, The Mystical Movie Guide
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' 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.
Gerard Wood, SFFMedia