It takes serious imagination these days to come up with a post-apocalyptic scenario that feels original. As a genre, it’s been done almost as much as zombies (and often inconjunction with them), to the point where new post-apocalyptic stories often feel like mixtapes of Mad Maxes and Survivorses past. Vesper, the new film by acclaimed Vanishing Waves directing duo Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, doesn’t entirely avoid such comparisons, but it introduces enough new ideas – and executes them cleverly enough on a modest budget – to stand up as an eye-opening vision of the future.
As a probably unnecessary opening title informs us, Vesper takes place in a future where humanity attempted to genetically engineer itself out of climate disaster, but only ended up unleashing new biological horrors of its own. The result is a world where the elites are clustered into glittering, sealed Citadels, while the rest of humanity scrounges for sustenance in a miserable, hostile world, trading scrap and biomass for seeds from which to grow their meagre food supply. The norms of society have shifted. Many people roam the countryside, clearly insane.
This future is also one where genetic engineering is far more accessible than it is today, which is where the titular protagonist Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) comes in. At 13, Vesper has seen some serious shit, but in the process she’s grown highly capable. She spends her days selling her blood (for unstated but probably ethically dubious use in the Citadels), caring for her sick father (Richard Brake, bedridden, with his digestive tract in a jar on the side table, and speaking only through a hovering, telepathically-linked drone), talking to her mother’s decaying corpse (which sort of makes sense in context), and engineering new plant species with a delightfully tactile desktop genetic engineering kit. Vesper’s existence is meagre, and frequently threatened by her callous community-leader uncle Jonas (an uncharacteristically mean Eddie Marsan), but she’s committed to finding a way to end the famine and bring her father back to health. All Vesper’s routines, however, are thrown into disarray when a flying craft from the Citadel crash-lands near their shack, bearing a mysterious passenger named Camellia (Rosy McEwen), whose very presence could either expedite her goals, or upend them.
Vesper might be bleak and post-apocalyptic, but ultimately it’s a film about humanity facing a turning point. One could argue that humanity is always at a turning point, but the events here suggest a humanity that, in attempting to engineer around climate change, has ended up altering itself in the process. There are lab-grown people here who aren’t considered sentient, but even their trajectory is implied to point towards a new form of life that could itself end up supplanting humans. Is that a bad thing? Is it a just payback for humanity’s scientific hubris? Or is it just another element slotting into our complicated existence?
These questions are almost more important to Vesper than the plot, which struggles to find a consistent direction in which to thrust and creaks visibly when it attempts to. The film is best experienced as a portrait of a world, its best moments are its most surreal and sensual, and its characters feel honest and sad. There are people just trying to get by, people who’ve lost their minds, and people trying to merely be recognised as people. And then, holding back any and all progress, are people like Eddie Marsan’s unassuming asshole of a villain, clinging selfishly to the little slice of power they’ve carved out for themselves. Seems about right.
Budgeted at about 5 million euros, Vesper is an exceptionally cleverly-made film, painting an expansive picture with relatively few resources. The cast is kept contained, with its couple of crowd scenes brief and well-deployed. Locations are limited to a house, a small village, forests, and a brief appearance of a second, much much stranger village. And though the film features its share of visual effects, they only each appear briefly, making an impact with a modicum of screen time. Similarly, rather than going for action – even in third-act situations that might usually call for it – Buozyte and Samper, and co-writer Brian Clark, push the film towards dread, suspense, and eerie beauty.
And eerie beauty is certainly Vesper’s strongest attribute. Shot in lush, earthy colours, with imaginative production design and an eye toward texture, its future world feels truly lived-in – or more appropriately, died-in. Most of the goings-on in this future landscape remain unexplained – a gutsy move in an era wherein everything in cinema seems either overexposited or intended as the basis for a spinoff. In many ways, it’s like a Cronenberg film, if Cronenberg was obsessed with flora instead of flesh: full of breathing tries, parasitic fungi, sentient slimes, and spores aplenty. Vesper isn’t a gory film, but it’s definitely squicky, mixing high-tech sci-fi with a grimy, leafy aesthetic.
There’s a scene in the middle of Vesper that features Camellia reading to Vesper from a picture book about animals, teaching her about all these strange creatures she’s never seen before and demonstrating the sounds they all make. It doesn’t move the plot forward. It doesn’t visually wow us. It just builds out the world, fleshes out the two characters involved, and offers us a quiet moment of contemplation and compassion amid a film brimming with desperation and inhumanity. That kinda sums up Vesper: a thoughtful, humble sci-fi film with big ideas and – deep down – a big heart.
Vesper is out now on demand in the US, and will presumably/hopefully come out in some form internationally at some point in the future.