That creepy mushroom/octopus-looking thing plays
absolutely no part in this movie
dir: Kristina Buožytė & Bruno Samper
Vesper. It means evening in Latin, and it’s the first name of the main character here.
It’s the evening of the world, or at least that of humanity. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, there aren’t many humans around and most of them aren’t well. Animals are gone, and plant life is abundant, but it’s mutated, and it doesn’t like to be eaten. In fact in a lot of cases it likes to fight back.
I don’t know how many people are left, but out in the wastelands, there’s 13-year-old Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), her paralysed dad (Richard Brake) who can still communicate with her through a floating drone that looks suspiciously like Wilson the volleyball, her vicious uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsen) and his coterie of cruel, in some cases deformed, kids. He also has genetically engineered humanoid slaves they call jugs. Very disturbing. “They” don’t consider them human, but they’re as human as the other scum oppressing and using them.
Vesper spends all her time looking for viable plants or seeds for food and / or looking after her father’s body, which requires bioenergy power sources. She knows her way around the decrepit world they inhabit, with her father’s voice often barking at her to be constantly vigilant to threats.
The opening titles make reference to genetic engineering, which humanity thought would save them from ecological disaster, actually causing the disaster itself, but in Vesper’s hands her strange form of biohacking or gene manipulation gives her a chance to do stuff that everyone else tells her she shouldn’t do.
When a probable act of sabotage compels her to interact with her uncle, a few things become apparent: out here no-one gets or gives anything for nothing, and while the primary payment seems to be blood, as in, literally blood, the way uncle and niece interact indicates he wants far more than anyone should be prepared to give.
Eddie Marsan often plays arseholes. He plays them very well. He plays them disturbingly well. His character of Jonas doesn’t just seem like someone who’s harsh or cruel due to circumstance alone: he seems to relish being cruel, and really enjoys the fact that the world has collapsed in order to him to become powerful.
All it takes is a knife, the inclination, and the comfort with butchery that Jonas exhibits, and you’re king of the wasteland.
He guards his power jealously. Any time he gets a hint that Vesper might be able to do something to change the balance of power, or that might improve life for the survivors, he viciously finds a way to stop that from happening.
We often hear characters speak of “the citadels”, places where few, presumably rich people live their lives in comfort and drink the blood of the scavengers in the wastelands, but we only see their drones flying above, usually.
UNTIL ONE CRASHES, don’t you know?
Now Vesper has a new friend, a very blonde, very Aryan looking girl who has some terrible wounds. Luckily, Vesper has these warped healing technologies that combine stuff that looks like naturotherapy mixed with magic gene-spliced Science! And it works!
Camellia (Rosy McEwen) is wary of Vesper, wary of everything in fact, as I guess this world looks ever so dirty to her, but she desperately wants to find out what happened to her father, who was also in the vehicle that crashlanded. Of course when Vesper gets to him, so does Jonas, so hijinks ensue.
So: we have an unfriendly world, we have some rich, powerful people harvesting the remaining scum for parts, someone who preys on the scum as well for shits and / or giggles, a severely disabled dad and a pale elf-like frightened girl who has some very strange biology to her, and what you have is mostly a pure high concept science fiction film unlike all the others that depend on catchphrases and action sequences that often make no sense whatsoever.
All of that doesn’t amount to Vesper necessarily being sci fi fans’ collective cup of tea. It’s a slow, dour slog with no real pacing to speak of, with a plot that unfolds in an unhurried and not always believable manner. The way in which Vesper and Camellia figure out something incredibly complicated about her DNA, and what it might mean for the world is strange but wonderfully done, I thought, in that sequence, but how it’s handled after that is… less than satisfactory (for me).
I have read some reviews that mention, in alignment with the special effects depicting this world, which are in many cases practical effects rather than CGI, that there is a deliberate effort to evoke a kind of fairy tale-like atmosphere rather than the usual harshness of Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic drabness.
I even saw one reviewer refer to the Studio Ghibli works of Hayao Miyazaki, which led me to wonder whether they’d ever actually sat through a single one of his films, or even watched this one the whole way through without looking at their phone constantly.
To me the works of David Cronenberg were far more reminiscent, in the meshing of the body horror / mutated flesh stuff with the carnivorous plant kingdom thriving around Vesper, even though there are also many scenes of unholy flowers trying to look all beautiful and alien.
I think the look of the film is fine. The performances on the most part were fine. It’s just, for me, I feel like there might have been something lost in translation. This is, after all, a Lithuanian / Belgian / French co-production, and I don’t know what that means for the story as realised on the screen, but it meant that I found it a little bit harder to really grasp the reality of the world outside as depicted. They routinely “say” what the world is like out there, but whenever they’re outside of Vesper’s haven it’s hard to grasp that it’s the world they say exists.
And the last section (prior to the ending, which I felt was probably a fine ending for this story) where goons from a citadel stalk Camellia and Vesper in a swamp-like place felt like a weak Doctor Who episode, and that ain’t good. I liked the relationship between the two female characters a lot, but some, if not most of their actions towards each other seemed baffling in the sense that, regardless of the outcomes, I couldn’t really grasp how they thought they were going to achieve some of the things they were trying to do when they did them.
I should give the makers some props for not making the end one where everything blows up and the good guys become the new overlords and the rich citadel jerks are made to grovel, which is how almost 100% of action sci fi flicks not aiming for a franchise seem to end. Still, it’s not an ending that leaves me wondering what would happen next in this world, whether it would be for good or for ill.
Vesper – at least it was interesting several times?
6 times I also resisted the urge to talk about the creepy sexualised ewww moments out of 10
“Oh Vesper, you don’t know the cost of dreams.” – none of us do until it comes time to pay - Vesper