A strain of science fiction has emerged lately, especially in Europe and more specifically France, that’s very sparing with visual effects and more dependent on tricks involving makeup and sets, sprinkled with a bit of body horror, à la David Cronenberg. French director Thomas Cailley’s The Animal Kingdom, which debuted in Cannes and played at the London film festival but has yet to open in the UK, is very much in this style, with genetically mutated people turning into animal-human hybrids – lizards, birds, all manner of mammals – and leaving the civilised world behind.

Tropic, a film directed by Édouard Salier, who has a horror feature, Cabeza Madre, under his belt, and lots of shorts and music videos – is in a similar vein. It outlines a near future where humanity has accepted that Earth is a lost cause – not just because of climate catastrophe but also because the sun will engulf it in about 5bn years’ time, so it’s best to start planning ahead. To that end, school-age youngsters are training to be astronauts on fiercely competitive and academically challenging courses. Non-identical twin brothers Tristán (Louis Peres) and Lázaro (Pablo Cobo) are both enrolled and hope to get chosen to go up to space together on a so-called eternity voyage. Tristán is stronger, and more confident than his brother; their Spanish, working-class single mother Mayra (Marta Nieto) jokes that when twins are born, one comes out the arse, and it’s a family tradition that Lázaro – the shy one who can’t hold his breath as long underwater and hasn’t yet had a girlfriend – is that one.

All that changes one day when the boys are swimming at a local watering hole and some space debris crashes into it. Lázaro gets out with minimal damage, but for sketchily defined reasons Tristán develops a bacterial infection that leaves him with brain damage, vastly decreased mobility, and half the skin on his face looking like bubble wrap. He’s siloed off to the special needs division of the school with other kids with complex issues, some of them wheelchair users, but seemingly most disturbed and emotionally scarred. Neurodivergent Oscar (Alane Delhaye), for instance, delights in reciting super-misogynistic rap lyrics while another (Victor Robert) scrolls through a Tinder-style app, saying to each image: “You’re ugly.”

Yes, of course, there are young men with special needs who exhibit such antisocial, aggressive behaviour. But the fact that the film doesn’t present any mitigating or counterbalancing characters leaves a little bit of an ableist bad taste in the mouth, and also seems to imply that only perfectly fit, white ubermensch chaps like Tristánn before the accident and Lázaro are worth conserving. Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca back in 1997 explored similar territory but felt much more questioning of that kind of eugenicist nonsense. It’s not so clear where Salier wants his audience to land morally. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere, however, and the three actors who play the nuclear family at the heart of the film impress throughout and feel convincingly like a tight family unit.

Tropic is on digital platforms from 4 March.


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