Today's Spanish filmmakers are heirs to one of humanity's finest and most politically progressive cinematic traditions. From Buñuel's L'Age D'Or (1930) and Victor Erice's Voice of the Beehive (1973), right through to Almodóvar's early work challenging heteronormativity and exploring the emotional lives of working-class women, you would be hard-pressed to find a more rigorously progressive and heroically anti-Fascist national cinema than that created and maintained by generations of Spanish filmmakers. Unfortunately, while these historic ties to leftist film and surrealist cinema have given the world any number of Spanish films that critique the world using unearthly imagery, Spain's track record when it comes to out-and-out science fiction is rather more difficult to locate. In fact, Gabe Ibáñez's Automata provides an excellent demonstration of why it is that people seldom talk about Spanish science fiction films.
The film begins with a voice-over that positions us in the late 2030s and informs us that ecological collapse has resulted in the death of over ninety-nine per cent of the human race. Despite surviving the physical and psychological traumas of catastrophic depopulation, the remaining twenty-one million humans have chosen to cram themselves into an unnamed walled city where they work shitty corporate jobs in order to pay for shitty clothes, shitty food, and shitty apartments with no windows.
Given the film's modest fifteen million dollar budget, this dystopian backdrop is well-rendered and atmospheric, but the dodgy world-building and overly-familiar visuals do leave you wondering why humanity has decided to celebrate its own imminent extinction with a painstaking recreation of Highlander II (1991). This act of unintended science fictional nostalgia is enabled by a race of ASIMO-like robots. Designed to help humanity push back the deserts and save their collapsing ecosystems, these "Pilgrims" were left to rot in menial jobs once the Great Technological Fix inevitably failed to materialise. Safe in the assumption that a suite of hard-wired Asimovian "protocols" would prevent their robotic slaves from either rising up and seeking vengeance or bootstrapping themselves into a technological singularity, humans continued slouching towards extinction clad in those stupid see-through PVC raincoats that everyone insisted on wearing in Blade Runner (1982).
Enter Jacq Vaucan, an insurance claims investigator played by Antonio Banderas. Vaucan is employed by the company that built the Pilgrims, and his job is to investigate every case of robot-related crime and determine whether his company needs to pay out on the insurance policies that protect innocent white people from their menacing robotic slaves. For reasons that are never made clear, Vaucan is burned out and desperate to move his young family to the coast, despite having no real idea of what it is that people do once they're there. In an effort to secure a transfer, he volunteers to investigate the case of a robot apparently managing to upgrade itself—in clear violation of its own hard-wired programming.
At first, Vaucan is convinced that something called a "Clocksmith" must be responsible for finding a way to either bend or circumvent the Pilgrims' Asimovian protocols. However, after a rather underwhelming encounter with Melanie Griffiths's unlicensed cyberneticist, Vaucan realises that, while a Clocksmith might be able to turn pieces of farming equipment into creepy mechanical sex workers, they could never convince Pilgrims to either upgrade themselves or harm human beings. So, given that humans are not responsible, where are all of these self-improving robots coming from? Well . . . where do you bloody think?
The problem with stories about robots unexpectedly becoming sentient is that science fiction has always portrayed robots as the kinds of things that turn out to have been people all along. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is considered by many to be the very first work of science fiction and yet its plot revolves around a creature that appears inhuman only to wind up asserting its basic (human) rights to happiness and self-determination. Similarly, Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (1921) introduced the term ‘robot' into the English language and attached it to members of a brutalised cybernetic underclass that rise-up and exterminate their cruel human masters.
From Shelley and Čapek through to Isaac Asimov's robot stories, and on to such recent cinematic takes as Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015), science fiction has now been asking whether robots could be people for at least two hundred years—and the answer only ever seems to come as a surprise to the people who write the stories.
What began as an important philosophical question ossified into a literary trope around the time that science fiction became a commercial genre. Now, after half a century of sustained over-exploitation, that trope has become the literary equivalent of a ritual: the genre keeps asking the question despite knowing the answer because asking the question is what genre does and because asking it satisfies some unspoken psychological need. One way of explaining science fiction's obsession with policing the boundaries of personhood is to view it as a set of cultural responses to the guilt and trauma of slavery and class-based oppression.
Liberal science fiction writers keep asking themselves whether the people who tend their crops and clean their clothes are people because they enjoy the feelings of self-righteousness that accompany each affirmative answer. The more inhuman the robotic subaltern, the more open-minded the humans who dare to take a stand and recognise their personhood. The striking thing about the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man" (1989) is not that Captain Picard took a stand and argued for Data's personhood, it's the fact that all of Data's friends took it entirely at face value when some random scientist turned up and declared him to be sub-human and on a similar legal footing to a ship's computer.
Conservative science fiction writers ask themselves a slightly different question in that they seem to wonder whether the people who tend their crops and clean their clothes are really to be trusted. These types congratulate themselves every time racial and economic oppression elicits a violent response—as these responses justify the urge to enforce that line between person and thing. Films like The Terminator (1984) and The Matrix (1999) plough a similar furrow to works like John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001), in that they isolate the violence of the reaction and stress the inhuman nature of the reacting population without ever making it clear what might have prompted that violence and resentment in the first place. Unprovoked violence is easy to condemn, and a belief that someone might indulge in unprovoked violence at any moment serves to legitimize many an injustice.
Ibáñez's Automata tries to have its cake and eat it, too, by presenting the robots as both sentient beings who are worthy of empathy and mechanical Others who might be capable of violence. This ambiguity is captured again and again throughout the film, but nowhere is it more elegantly expressed than in the scene in which a robotic sex worker strokes Banderas' worried face with a metallic claw and informs him that she is capable of dealing out both pleasure and pain upon request.
Ibáñez keeps returning to the ambiguity of his robotic creations, since the tension between the liberal view of robots as mistreated subalterns in need of understanding, and the conservative view of robots as inhuman monsters in need of control, is what provides the film with much of its narrative energy. Every time Banderas's character expresses sympathy for a robot, that robot does something unexpected. Every time the audience starts to suspect that the robots might be evil, Ibáñez has someone abuse a robot in an effort to provoke a sympathetic response.
The real problem with Automata is that it is lacks the resources to sustain its own narrative. For example, while the opening act alludes to both ecological collapse and Vaucan's troubled professional life, both of these plot points are AWOL from the second half of the film. This means that, rather than being able to draw on character or theme to sustain the plot, Ibáñez runs out of things to say the second he finishes establishing his robots and how they might, or might not, be evil. Thematically under-developed and dramatically under-powered, the second half of this film is nothing more than sweaty Antonio Banderas being dragged through a desert on his way to a poorly executed and dramatically meaningless gun fight that serves only to squander the involvement of such wonderful performers as Tim McInnerny, Robert Foster, and David Ryall.
Despite looking much better than its modest budget might lead us to expect, Automata is both a dull film and a derivative work of science fiction. Neither thoughtful enough to work as a genre think-piece nor exciting enough to work as an action film, it falls between several stools and unsurprisingly disappeared from cinemas quite swiftly after its release. It is interesting to note the difference between a film like Automata and what we know of Spain's national cinema as, like a growing number of Spanish genre films, Automata was shot in English and made outside of Spain in an effort to gain a favourable tax status and appeal to English-speaking markets. In an age where most low-budget genre filmmakers aspire to nothing more than getting their films onto supermarket shelves and streaming services, the decision to shoot in English and to limit ‘local colour' makes sound financial sense—but it also demonstrates how difficult it can be to create and maintain a national genre cinema.
When English-speaking critics talks about a particular country's genre cinema, it is usually as a result of one foreign-language film managing to jump through all of the hoops required to get foreign-language films in front of English-speaking audiences. Being both lazy and risk-averse, the film business has a tendency to respond to any and all successes with a demand for more of the same. The canonical example of this phenomenon is when Hideo Nakata's Ring (1998) found an English-speaking language and created a boom for first Japanese and then Korean horror. A similar thing happened in the late 2000s when J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage (2007) created a market for such Spanish horror films as Guillem Morales's Julia's Eyes (2011), Jaume Ballaguero's Sleep Tight (2011) and the REC series, which at present comprises four instalments. This type of thing happens all the time in world cinema but in order for the trickle-down effect to work, there needs to be a thriving local scene. J-horror would never have happened had Japanese horror not been in a position to offer more of the same, and likewise Spain would not have earned a reputation for horror without a pre-existing ability to produce distinctive horror films.
Unlike those Spanish horror films that found an English-speaking audience in the late-2000s and early 2010s, Automata feels disconnected from any and all social contexts. Even if it had been an international success, nobody would have taken Automata to be anything more than a low-budget genre film made for the English-speaking market by an international cast and crew. With no roots in Spanish film culture and no thought for the filmmakers that might follow them, the creators of Automata have managed to create something truly inhuman: a work of art that speaks from nowhere and to no one.
While the economics of the film business are very different to those of the publishing industry, works like Automata do raise interesting questions for literary science fiction at a time when the markets for both translated fiction and fiction produced by non-Anglo writers are growing by the day: at what point does people choosing to write stuff in English threaten the health of non-English genre scenes? At what point does trying to make stuff comprehensible to lazy and culturally-introspective Anglos require authors to abandon a commitment to local concerns and local frames of reference? Capitalism is a force that breaks down boundaries and expands markets, but boundaries can also serve to protect and nurture unique subjectivities. Sometimes being a citizen of the world requires you to be a citizen of nowhere in particular.