Vesper was directed by duo Kristina Buozyte (Vanishing Waves, Kolekcioniere) and Bruno Samper, written by Buozyte, Samper, and Brian Clark (Compulsion, Not Funny), and stars Raffiella Chapman (Homebound, The Have-Nots), Richard Brake (The Munsters, Tremors: Shrieker Island), Rosy McEwen (The Alienist, Blue Jean), and Eddie Marsan (The Contractor, White Boy Rick). It follows a young girl as she searches for a way to fix her father’s life support system and eventually replenish the largely diminished food supply on a destroyed Earth.
The Plot: Since there’ve been examples of just about every world-ending event across every medium, it’s hard to come away with something truly unique in the apocalyptic department. Buozyte, Samper and Clark know this and abide by an acceptable, oft-told story, but add flavour between beats.
An opening crawl informs us that the world has been torn asunder by efforts to fix it; genetically engineered food, organisms and viruses wreaked havoc on the population except for those that live in “citadels,” small cities that hold usable seeds. For most, this would be just another disparate divide that apocalyptic fiction uses as a buffer for conflict, but the filmmakers behind the movie sell the vision better than most. This situation forces Vesper (Chapman) to forage for the survival of herself and her bedridden father Darius (Brake).
Finding the basics doesn’t come easy for the duo (Darius has a drone that he biologically pilots) as Vesper has to mix and match grubs and plants to keep going. This, along with a break in the equipment that keeps Darius alive, spurs a trek that reaches Jonas (Marsan), who does little to help aside from having seeds to take, and later to Camellia (McEwen), in an effort to get to a citadel with Camellia and find a way to continue to live.
It’s not a complex narrative, but stories like these so rarely are because necessity takes up the lives of these characters. Vesper doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it uses established ideas in a polished way, eventually evolving into something truly its own.
The Characters: Normally, characters in these scenarios are either left bland and empty or filled to the brim with bombastic traits and dialogue. The writing trio found a middle ground for the feature, which brings some thick exchanges while finding a way to allow silent scenes to illustrate characters, making for some memorable ones.
The titular character is a wonderfully realized one, with the right attitudes, behaviours, and backstory to fit into the world without ever coming across as overwrought or underwritten. Her mother left the family a year ago to seek a life in a citadel, forcing Vesper to take over in taking care of her father; there’s plenty of work that goes into it, and as such she has developed a knack for biotech and wants to use that knowledge for Darius’s sake. Because of sparse interactions, she’s a little too eager and trusting of others, but this is an endearing sort of naivety that feels authentic given the surroundings.
Camellia got lucky that her glider crashed near Vesper since most people don’t take too kindly to citadel dwellers (citadwellers?). She knows this and is equally guarded about being picked up by an outsider, but soon sees that Vesper’s intentions aren’t malevolent, and eventually bonds with the girl as they trade stories of their environments. Both of them pair nicely as they bring different skill sets and knowledge, but sometimes the writers rely a little too much on coincidental similarities, with their motives for travel being basically the same.
The second leads Darius and Jonas are attended to, but less so than is necessary to make them feel like late inclusions in the script. Darius is good, with his past time in a citadel’s army leaving him invalid, making his distrust earned. Adding to this is his level of protection of Vesper, who he doesn’t want to get sucked into a horrible fate of taking unnecessary risks like he presumably did. Jonas feels a bit cartoony in his clearly antagonistic attitudes but is well-placed in the story.
No one character ever feels like they don’t have a place in this story. Vesper again takes old moulds and makes them new again thanks to the unique talents that each of the characters has mixed with competent reworkings of old traits.
The Drama: Because of the expertise Vesper’s writers clearly have with managing the minutiae of indie dramas, this feature comes across strongly with its use of young-adult themes that are carefully balanced with the survivalism necessary for the characters.
Making the world a cruel place is easy to do from a writer’s perspective, but Buozyte, Samper and Clark are careful to have a mix of luxuries and adversities in their picture. Explicit definitions of the new rules of survival aren’t given, but through the actions of the characters, we see that certain things like trading for food and finding water and materials to build settlements aren’t difficulties. Contrasting this is the question of sustainability across various topics like human populations, growing food, and dealing with dismissive settings.
Because the movie doesn’t treat Vesper like she’s the best at everything, these problems are also her own as she must manage to keep fueling Darius’s life support system, upkeeping her own bioengineering experiments, and trying to avoid being taken in by Jonas, who runs a camp with his children, harvesting their blood to maintain good fortune with the nearest citadel. Crucially, none of them get any easier, making Vesper’s (and Camellia’s) dwindling options in the face of a certain reveal feel organic; and her solutions to each element are kept in line with the character’s creativity.
Pressure is applied in the right ways, though some innovation of these problems would’ve been appreciated. The movie is carefully considered and never feels contrived in the way it lays out obstacles for its characters, making most beats land with impact for the world and the audience.
The Technics: Completely outdoing Hollywood has undoubtedly gotten easier over time, with proliferating techniques of getting around hurdles allowing more international and independent filmmakers to get similar results with less money spent. The Lithuanian/Belgian/French production of Vesper makes this case in less than two hours.
Problems aren’t completely circumvented, as the script occasionally has trouble with illustrating the functions of certain items, implications of its music (you’ll understand if you watch), and some cliche conversations. The score is a mixed bag too, as it’s solid when it’s not blatantly echoing tracks from Annihilation but has a hard time moving away from almost exact replications of its themes.
On the other hand, though, is one of the most fully realized worlds ever put to the screen. Buozyte, Samper and Clark came up with their own ‘bio-punk’ aesthetic that’s rife with interesting and believable concepts from the citadels, reactive biology (breathing trees, curious plants, etc.), and a reason that binds it all together that makes for a captivating sight. Of course, they owe a lot of this success to a fantastic practical effects team, great CGI, atmospheric cinematography by Feliksas Abrukauskas (Cinephilia, Zero 3), and impeccable production design by Ramunas Rastauskas (Chernobyl mini-series, Motherland) and Raimondas Dicius (Owl Mountain, Cold Tango), who all turn in work worthy of being gawked at regardless of the story.
Hopeful post-apocalyptic stories don’t come around that often, but Vesper has a twinkle in its eye that outshines its narrative missteps and familiarity, and it’s pulled farther by strong acting and wonderful technical specs. I want to revisit this world soon, famine and all.