Vesper turns ecological disaster into a melancholia-tinged world of low-fi sci-fi and haunting isolation in a desolate place. It’s also not the first time that screenwriters Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper have tapped into twisted science to craft a very uneasy narrative that examines humanity and what it means to be human.
At its core, Vesper feels like a dark fairytale, like something born from the haunted tales of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Part of this aesthetic is due in part to the somber, post-apocalyptic landscape built amid the forests and fields of Lithuania, while the other can be attributed to its titular star (Raffiella Chapman) looking like the picture-perfect young protagonist from every fairytale, coming-of-age in an inhospitable and dangerous world.
Vesper is largely left alone to fend for herself and her bedridden, half-dead father Darius (Richard Brake) who is able to accompany her throughout most of the day as a hovering drone that carries his consciousness within it. Though the functionality of this science is faulty at best, easily hampered by marauders stealing power from their supply, Vesper’s carelessness in storing reserve power, and the cruelty of makeshift leaders. While she may not be entirely isolated, those living nearby—including her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan)—are far from outside sources of care and protection. The planet is not just inhospitable, its remaining people are too.
In a world left to ruination, the common man is left to make do in the wreckage, while wealthy oligarchs sit somewhere beyond the forests in citadels. Vesper doesn’t delve too deeply into these grand spaces, but the envy and hatred is palpable from every character that mentions them and whatever tensions exist between them. Jonas has made a life for himself as a self-important leader of sorts that uses child labor to run his farm—in addition to humanlike AIs called “Jugs” that they sorely mistreat. Vesper’s outlook on life, citadels, and genetic modification alters forever when she comes across the crash site of a father-daughter duo traveling from the citadels, and circumstances force Vesper to not only work alongside Camellia (Rosy McEwen), but to trust her with her future.
As Vesper’s director, Buožytė has a keen eye for crafting a compelling visual scene from the shimmering, jellyfish-like plant life, to stomach-churning body horror, and smart use of light, there’s never a moment that leaves you wishing for something more intriguing to watch. Vesper is a film that knows when to utilize VFX to show the full breadth of Earth’s future devastation, while staying grounded in the reality of human-made horrors. The dangerous flora and fauna are far less terrifying than human depravity and an innate desire to control.
I have a soft spot for indie sci-fi films like Vesper; there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing what people can craft outside the tentpole sci-fi IPs, especially when their ingenuity has a budget that prevents extravagant and gratuitous CGI-fests. Sci-fi is at its best when everyday objects are turned into artifacts of ages past, tarnished by the misdeeds of humanity. While Vesper’s story may be lacking in areas where I was hoping to find deeper meaning, its production design is something to marvel at. Earth’s ecosystem has collapsed and those in power have exploited what remains, and the scenery left behind is a feast for the eyes. Cast in shades of earthy hues, nature’s splendor is set in the background with salvaged metals and rough textures making up the foreground.
The issue with Vesper is that there are a lot of really interesting concepts that simply cannot come to fruition in two hours. The Jugs are a fascinating concept that are unfortunately only half pursued, even with the subplot introduced at around the one-hour mark. The downfall of society is only really hinted at, never addressed head-on, which mostly works, but also leaves much to be desired. The strange, bioengineered plants and genetics are a novel concept that could easily spawn an entirely separate feature-length film, especially with Vesper’s own impressive studies and discoveries. It’s clear that Buožytė, Samper, and Brian Clark have a deep passion for this specific niche of sci-fi, though that passion came to a head with too many good ideas all at once. But even still, it doesn’t lessen how impressive Vesper is as an exploration of the junction of scientific discovery and a greed-fueled ecological disaster.
While Vesper may have weak spots, Chapman is far from one of them. She shines as Vesper, carrying the full weight of a young girl forced to grow up and become a caregiver in an uncaring world. She balances her humanity and heart gracefully as she is met with desperate, tragic moments that could tip the scales of her own soul. As much as Vesper is about a world torn apart by ecological disaster, it is equally about a young girl torn apart by personal, man-made disaster that forces her to rise to a place above it all.
Vesper comes to theaters and VOD on September 30.