Fantastic Fest 2022: VESPER: Seeds of Hope in a Poisoned Planet

Vanishing Waves filmmakers craft a visionary sci-fi epic

The world has been biologically poisoned. Animals are gone, and bizarre new plantlife has emerged. Oligarchies have ascended, ruling with advanced biotech that is sealed off in citadels. Peasants must fend for themselves in mud-caked hovels assembled from remnants of what once was, and discovering new ways of being from an ever-evolving new biome.

It is within this stark postapocalypse unlike anything we’ve quite seen before that we meet our resilient heroine Vesper (Rafiella Chapman in a breakout performance) and her father Darius (Richard Brake). Darius is a character realized in a way unlike I’ve really ever seen before in a film. His physical body is largely comatose after an injury obtained while working for the Citadel. But he’s kept alive with a complex system of mechanical and biological genius seemingly built with Darius and Vesper’s combined ingenuity. But Brake is able to create an incredible character here who is physically immobilized but is also represented by a drone that is able to explore and interact with Vesper as she traverses the world gathering the supplies they need to live. The perennially great Eddie Marsan plays a local post apocalyptic warlord-type Jonas, who happens to be Darius’ brother… which is perhaps the only reason he’s allowed Vesper and Darius to make their own way in the wilderness outside of his encampment. But as with everything in Vesper, there’s a humanity to Jonas not found in many roles of this ilk.

So we’ve come to know a bit about the world of Vesper and the characters within; the hard-scrabble existence and the practices that keep them all alive. Breaking up this rhythm is Camellia (Rosy McEwan), whose citadel flying ship crashes and who is rescued by Vesper. Vesper’s mother has long been out of the picture, having become one of the Pilgrims, a mysterious group of mutes who seem to impulsively gather together and haul junk, perhaps succumbing to some kind of virus that compels their behavior. And so, Camellia represents a ray of hope into Vesper’s world; a chance to enter the Citadel, perhaps, and ply her science there. She may also represent a mother figure that Vesper has lost. But Darius knows that hope can be dangerous in a world like theirs. And Camellia’s arrival is a grenade tossed into the way of life our characters have known up until now.

Writer/Directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper (Vanishing Waves) have clearly created such a rich world here that it took me several paragraphs to even set the scene for an interested reader, and I’ve legitimately not spoiled any of the crucial and thrilling plot developments that play out in this meticulously realized tale. Among my very favorite films of Fantastic Fest 2022 so far, Vesper speaks very personally to me, striking that perfect balance of hope amidst despair captured by something like Children of Men (which happens to be my very favorite movie of all time). Every aspect of Vesper is realized fully and completely. The script develops rich characters in a clearly defined fictional future. That future is brought to life with flawless and visionary visual effects and art direction. That the film was probably created on a miniscule budget never really breaks into the fantasy of the film. While we almost never see the Citadels… we don’t have to. We absolutely believe they’re out there, just beyond the confines of Vesper’s cabin or Jonas’ farm compound. And the various plants and complex machinery designed exclusively for this story are absolutely magnificent to behold. There’s a Cronenbergian gross body-horror, bio-tech feel to the contraptions Vesper and others use to scrape by an existence. It’s almost impossible to believe that Vesper exists, so fully realized and unique is its vision in a world where stories like this usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars to tell.

Vesper’s journey is ultimately one of bravery, rebellion, and resourcefulness. There’s a bit of a young adult fiction vibe to the narrative as we are indeed following a female lead through a post-apocalypse perhaps somewhat akin to Hunger Games or others that came in the wake of that juggernaut. But Vesper is so clearly crafted with a spirit of independence and artistic clarity. I genuinely don’t want to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Vesper, Camellia, Darius, and even Jonas have rich character arcs that play out against a wonderfully realized world that has some more than obvious connections to our own world today. Vesper’s drive to get into a Citadel is fueled by a desire to share her many scientific discoveries with the world, and to change the circumstances she and her people are forced to bear. But the Citadel has genetically coded all their seeds, making agriculture impossible for the peasants. And so concepts such as scarcity mentality, Big Agriculture, and even misogyny and slavery, are all explored here with great impact. What Vesper chooses to ultimately do with her scientific discoveries and her lot in life is nothing short of breathtaking, with Vesper ending on such a note of swelling music and realized destiny that I found myself in tears in the final moments.

Vesper is the special kind of film that I’ll find myself recommending to people many years from now as a brilliant example of what independent science fiction can look and feel like with visionary filmmakers like Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper at the helm. It’s getting a real US release from IFC, so I hope a wide audience will get a chance to experience this film for themselves. Seeing it on the big screen at Fantastic Fest certainly allowed it to wash over me and illicit tears of hope, but I imagine Vesper will also play strongly in more intimate venues as well. Fans of independent sci-fi and hope amidst poison should seek out Vesper with a quickness.

And I’m Out.

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