Vesper gives the Apocalypse a beautiful face and an ugly soul

Polygon was present at the 2022 Fantastic Fest and reported on new horror and sci-fi movies. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere.

Grim futures and hopeless circumstances are so common on screen that they’ve come to feel like the default mode for science fiction storytelling, particularly in low-budget movies. It’s hard for one crapsack world Future-fascist dystopia to stand out among all the rest, as so many sci fi stories warn us about how every area of our lives could lead us towards an apocalypse. The indie science fiction movie Vesper is no exception to that rule — it takes place in a future where Earth has been rendered near-uninhabitable, and the survivors either hide in shining enclaves called Citadels or eke out hand-to-mouth lives in the wreckage outside the Citadels’ walls. But dystopian sci-fi has rarely been as delicately and beautifully detailed as Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s new film.

Vesper In the realm of, simultaneously, he plays as a resourceful shoestring-budget neophyte. Dual and like Alex Garland’s $50 million passion project Annihilation. It’s a small-scale story, at times so hushed and minimalist that even putting two characters in the same room can feel overcrowded. But in their first movie release since 2012’s well-received sci-fi import Vanishing WavesBuozyte & Samper do an admirable job of creating a realistic, tangible world around these peaceful spaces. The scenery tells this story as well as any laborious explanation.

Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) and Camellia (Rosy McEwen) stand in Vesper’s dark, crowded lab in Vesper

Image: IFC Films

An opening title card label Vesper’s ugly version of the future as “The New Dark Ages.” Facing environmental collapse, humanity tried to stave off catastrophe through genetic engineering. But modified viruses and organisms escaped into the wild and took up the role of invasive species, wiping out Earth’s original biosphere and supplanting it with aggressive new forms of life. Only Citadel labs can still produce seeds. These seeds are designed to produce sterile crops so outsiders will need to trade or purchase new seeds each season.

Vesper, a thirteen-year old girl played by Raffiella Chapman, is determined to apply all she knows about science to solving the problem. She works in a dirty lab, splicing genetic material to unlock Citadel seeds and grow her own edible plants. The project must be abandoned in order to survive as Vesper tries to feed her paralyzed father Darius (Richard Brake) with what she can find or scrounge from their lethal surroundings.

There’s no timeline for when or how any of this happened, but the setting shows all the signs of a world that became far more advanced than ours before it collapsed. Darius can’t move or speak, but a grubby plug leading into his brain lets him accompany Vesper on her rounds via a hovering telepresence drone, through which he perpetually grumbles about her choices and how much time she wastes on trying to make their lives better. Meanwhile, Darius’ quietly predatory brother, Jonas (Eddie Marsan), runs a small, rough enclave nearby, where he’s bred a flock of children whose blood is a valuable commodity in trades with the Citadel.

He is his niece Vesper, who is just past pubescence. However, he does not hide that he wants her to be his breeding stock. In a genre where evil often comes in the form of killer-robot armies or towering, powerful villainy, Darius stands out as a deeper and more personal kind of monster just in the proprietary, knowing way he looks at Vesper when she comes to him in a crisis, and the boundary-testing ways he touches her when they both know she can’t afford to make him angry.

Vesper discovers an elfin woman named Camellia, Rose McEwen, who is injured near the wreckage after a drone from the Citadels crashes-land. Camellia promises Vesper that if Vesper can get her and her father Elias safely to a Citadel Citadel, Vesper will be allowed entry. It’s everything Vesper wants — but naturally, the offer comes with a few major catches.

Vesper’s basic story plays out in ways familiar from sci-fi movies as small as Prospect As extravagant and outrageous as possible Elysium. Any time a faceless group of all-powerful elites faces off against a single determined have-not living in their shadow, it’s fairly clear that there are going to be a lot of small hopes built and dashed along the road to finding some kind of path forward, and that virtually everyone else in the story is there to curry favor from those elites and stand in the protagonist’s way. Vesper doesn’t do enough to differentiate its dynamic from so many other movies like it; so much of its action seems inevitable that there’s almost no room for surprise.

The movie often feels like a collection of elements from other memorable, often culty Sci-Fi movies: the ramshackle technology and father-daughter dynamic as well as the intimidating alien world. Prospect; the solemn intellectual and inescapable oppression of Duncan Jones’ Moon; The dreary palette and exhausted desperation Children of Men; and many more. Vesper would make a comfortable double feature with any of them — or with movies like The Road, The Survivalist, or Cargo.

Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) holds her hand over a delicate, glowing flower that reaches its tendrils toward her in Vesper

Image: IFC Films

But what is the point? Vesper memorable isn’t the uniqueness of its ideas, it’s the uniqueness of how they’re expressed. The distinctions start with Chapman’s performance in the title role; she isn’t the fierce, combative hero of so many dystopian-future stories, but a head-down, wary survivalist who even at 13 has clearly learned caution and care. Chapman’s script gives Vesper a unique sense of grit, which is rare for this kind of story. Every move she makes acknowledges her childhood, when she was a young teenager with too little freedom and too much responsibility. Her father may disapprove of her, but he can’t do anything to stop her from doing what she wants. She does not apologize for her choices and doesn’t feel any regret. She’s meek and iron-willed at the same time, and it’s an intriguing combination.

It is easy to appreciate the little details about her past and the world that she creates through that performance. The same applies to the production design and world-building. It’s found in little details, like the inexpertly rendered face on Darius’ hover-drone, clearly painted on by a much younger Vesper who was trying to make him seem more comfortingly human. Or it’s found in compelling mysteries, like the secrets behind the “pilgrims,” silent people who hide their faces and constantly collect inedible scraps to haul off to some unknown destination. No one ever bothers to explain the immense, disintegrating octopus-like machines scattered across the landscape — like the similar robots in Amazon’s Tales From the Loop series, they’re just part of the backdrop of the world, an obvious remnant of a former failed effort to reclaim the world for a wider range of humanity than the few cloistered survivors.

Vesper’s strongest asset, apart from Chapman’s resilient determination and Marsan’s subtle, unshowy menace, is the way special effects are used to populate that world with a seemingly infinite array of ominous life. The condition Vesper finds Camellia in — with slow-moving tentacled Things (plants? Animals? Both? Neither?) opportunistically latched on to all her wounds — is both vividly horrifying and treated offhandedly as the obvious result of someone falling unconscious outside. Vesper is surrounded by unsettling things that twitch, throb and gape open hungrily on trees. When Darius’ hover-drone is opened, it reveals a sickeningly Cronenbergian form of bio-tech, all frills, membranes, and thick, glutinous goop. Even the Citadel ships look disturbingly insectoid monstrosities.

Sci-fi fans love the high-speed action sequences of Star Wars and prefer it in their lives. The Mandalorian Book of Boba Fett Will complain Vesper It’s too slow and too quiet. It’s a legitimate gripe for people who said the same thing about Annihilation, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s similar Stalker before it, or any other piece of science fiction that’s more cerebral than physical. For science fiction lovers who love it. Moon or Kogonada’s After Yang, Vesper This is a rich delight: A familiar story, told with a thousand creepy and vibrant grace notes.

Vesper September 30th, in theaters and on VOD

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