Some lives are filled with so much promise that the idea of them going unfulfilled can take on the all-consuming dread of a horror film. Tropic has all the tenets of a body horror film worthy of Cronenberg himself, with just a splash of science fiction in its space exploration theme, but it also has at its heart a simple, classic drama about family and brotherly love that runs so deep it can barely even be put into words. Although it is languid in parts, the ambitious film deals with all its many nuances with empathy and grace, creating a moving cinematic experience.
Twins Tristan and Lazaro (played by Louis Peres and Pablo Cobo, respectively) are essentially inseparable. They both train together at an elite school, hoping to become selected for the ambitious Eternity project, a European cooperative that will see a team of astronauts engage in deep space travel. If they are chosen, their involvement will require a huge sacrifice: They will spend decades, perhaps their entire lives, in space. Not exactly the sort of job you can decide six months in isn’t a good fit for you, hand in your two weeks’ notice, and leave.
But the two brothers are committed and eager to do anything they can to earn the top places at their school that will allow them to advance. And what’s more, they want to take this journey together. Neither can imagine not having the other at their side. Although both are exceptional mentally and physically, Tristan is ever so slightly more gifted. He can run a little faster and hold his breath a little longer, and although they’re the same age, he comes across like the big brother, assuring Lazaro whenever he has doubts about his abilities.
But then the unthinkable happens. During a night swim at a nearby lake, a mysterious object falls from the sky, filling the water with a strange, glowing green liquid. Lazaro manages to get to shore, but Tristan isn’t so lucky. Whatever this substance is, it infects him fully, rendering him nearly unrecognizable. His face and body are deformed, covered in welts from where he made contact with it, and the damage extends to his brain, which is operating at only a fraction of his normal capacity. One moment an elite athlete with a brilliant mind, the next severely disabled and struggling with intellectual disabilities. His life, and the lives of both his mother and brother, change in an instant.
Tropic has the tenor of a science fiction body horror film (and it certainly does fall into that genre), but what’s underneath the surface is a simple family drama. Rather than focusing on the mystery of the green goo or some futuristic cure for its damage, the film keeps at its heart the struggles of Lazaro, Tristan, and their mother navigating their new reality. Lazaro has lost his compass and is stuck watching his strong, outgoing, full-of-life brother retreat into himself. He is put in the impossible position of trying to take his brother’s place, knowing all the while that any success he achieves is only possible because of Tristan’s horrific injury. Their mother has prepared herself for the idea of her two sons leaving Earth, potentially forever, on a journey to the stars. Now she suddenly faces the alternative: What if one or both of them stays behind under circumstances that neither would have chosen?
And most difficult of all, Tristan has to come to terms with the crushing loss of everything that had once defined his identity: His athleticism, his looks, his intelligence, his confidence, and his future. With these challenges facing each of our lead characters, Tropic is a film that feels as though it has as much in common with something like Ordinary People, featuring a flawed family coping with an unexpected tragedy, as it does the science fiction and horror genres.
That’s not to say we don’t feel their influence, however. Tropic draws from some of the most classic body horror films. We see shades of Phantom of the Opera in the mask that Tristan wears to cover his heavy facial scarring (the damage covers just one-half of his face, a constant reminder to Tristan and his family of everything he had lost). The makeup and prosthetic design that transforms Tristan is evocative of Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly in The Fly. The focus on space exploration (and the implication that the source of the mysterious green liquid is otherworldly) offers the film an easy entrance into the realm of science fiction; although Tropic seems to be set in the present day, or near enough, the training academy where the prospective astronaut’s study gives it tinges of a futuristic landscape. The fact that their mission is considered so essential is ominous, offering subtle hints of a near future where Earth may not be a reliable home for much longer.
If Tropic is a little slow and drawn out at parts, it nonetheless delivers an understated narrative that captures all the complexities of a family coping with a sudden, heartbreaking change that impacts all their lives. If the mission featured in Tropic has its eye cast firmly on the limitless potential of the future, the heartbreaking irony of the film is that in his relentless pursuit of said future, Tristan loses any chance he had to achieve it. Tropic is a pleasant surprise, a genre-bending piece of fiction that combines the practical effects of body horror with all the emotional impact of a more traditional drama.