Polygon is on the ground at the 2022 Fantastic Fest, reporting on new horror, sci-fi, cult, and action movies making their way to theaters and streaming. 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 or future-fascist dystopia to stand out over all the others, when so many sci-fi stories expressly warn us about how every aspect of our lives could possibly lead us toward some sort of 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 simultaneously plays like a resourceful shoestring-budget indie in the realm of 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 Waves, Buozyte and Samper do an impressive job of creating a plausible, tangible world around these quiet spaces. The scenery tells the story as effectively as any laborious exposition could.
An opening title card labels 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. The only seeds that will still grow come from Citadel labs and are designed to produce sterile crops, so outsiders have to trade for or purchase new seeds every growing season.
Thirteen-year-old Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) is stubbornly determined to apply what she knows about science to the problem, and she tinkers away in a grubby lab, splicing DNA to figure out how to unlock Citadel seeds or grow her own edible plants. But the project has to take a back seat to survival, as she tries to feed herself and her paralyzed father, Darius (Richard Brake), with whatever she can glean or scrounge from their lethal environment.
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.
While Vesper is his niece, and barely past pubescence, he makes no secret that he wants her as 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.
Then a drone from one of the Citadels crash-lands near his enclave, and Vesper finds an elfin woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen) wounded near the wreckage. Camellia promises that if Vesper gets her and her father, Elias, safely to a Citadel, Vesper will be granted entry herself. 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 and as oversized and bombastic as 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.
And the movie as a whole often feels like a grab bag of elements from other memorable, often culty sci-fi movies: the ramshackle technology, father-and-daughter dynamic, and intimidating alien world of Prospect; the solemn intellectual and inescapable oppression of Duncan Jones’ Moon; the dreary palette and strained, exhausted desperation of Children of Men; and more. Vesper would make a comfortable double feature with any of them — or with movies like The Road, The Survivalist, or Cargo.
But what makes 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 and the script give Vesper a form of grit that feels unusual for this kind of story. Her every move acknowledges her history, as a young teenager with too much responsibility and too much freedom. Her father may disapprove of her, but he can’t do anything to stop her from doing what she wants. She excuses her choices to him, but makes them without apology or remorse. She’s meek and iron-willed at the same time, and it’s an intriguing combination.
The small details about her past and the world that emit from that performance are all the more welcome because no one has to spell them out. The same goes for 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. Everywhere Vesper goes, unsettling things twitch, throb, or gape open hungrily on trees and plants. 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 like disturbing insectoid monstrosities.
Inevitably, sci-fi fans who prefer the revved-up speeds and frequent action sequences of Star Wars shows like The Mandalorian and Book of Boba Fett will complain that Vesper is 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. But for the kind of science fiction fans who loved Moon or Kogonada’s After Yang, Vesper is a rich pleasure: a familiar enough story, but told with a thousand creepy, vibrant, crawling grace notes.
Vesper will be in theaters and on VOD on Sept. 30.