Director: Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper
Cast: Raffiella Chapman, Eddie Marsan, Rosy McEwen, Richard Brake, Melanie Gaydos
Runtime: 1 hr 54 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 6 October 2022
Synopsis: Set after the collapse of the Earth's ecosystem, the film follows Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), a headstrong 13-year-old girl who uses her survival skills to subsist in the remnants of a strange and dangerous world with her ailing father, Darius (Richard Brake). When Vesper finds a mysterious woman, Camellia (Rosy McEwen), alone and disoriented after an aerial crash, she agrees to help find her missing companion in exchange for safe passage to the Citadel - the dark central hub where oligarchs live in comfort thanks to state-of-the-art biotechnology. Vesper soon discovers that her brutal neighbor, Jonas (Eddie Marsan), is searching for Camellia, who is harboring a secret that could change all of their lives forever. Forced into a dangerous adventure, Vesper must rely on her wits and bio-hacking abilities to unlock the key to an alternate future.
If you’re looking for a narratively compelling dystopian fantasy, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed by ‘Vesper’. Less social commentary than world-building, this arthouse genre offering is elegantly visualized from start to finish, but is otherwise let down by clunky plotting.
The opening title card describes a bleak future known as ‘The New Dark Ages’, where genetically engineered viruses and organisms intended by humans to stave off environmental collapse have now wiped out our biosphere and supplanted it with new forms of aggressive life. Those who survive either hide in shining enclaves known as Citadels, or eke out hand-to-mouth lives outside the Citadels’ walls; unfortunately for the latter, the only seeds that will grow come from Citadel labs, and are designed to produce sterile crops.
Amidst this backdrop, we find the steely 13-year-old Vesper (impressive up-and-comer Raffiella Chapman) trying to make the best of her circumstances. By day, she scavengers the ruins of the old world, accompanied by a scout drone piloted by her bedridden father Darius (Richard Broke). By night, she tinkers away in a grubby lab, trying to engineer a crop that hasn’t been programmed to die after a single harvest.
Things get complicated when she rescues an elfin woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen) from the wreckage of a cruiser that crash lands on its way between Citadels. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Camellia is highly sought after due to the nature of her being, and is hunted by the people whom Vesper’s creepy uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan) work for.
It should not come as a surprise that Camellia and Vesper will form a mother-daughter bond that will see them look out for each other despite from different worlds, not least because Vesper’s biological mother had abandoned her and her father to join the ranks of the drifting pilgrims to journey towards some promised land. Vesper will also come to protect Camellia from Jonas, who runs a small enclave where he breeds a flock of children to sell their blood in exchange for seeds from the Citadels.
As intriguing as it sounds, this isn’t an action thriller by any measure; instead, directors Kristina Buoï¿½ytė and Bruno Samper, who are making their first film since 2012’s well-received ‘Vanishing Waves’, take their time to build up an immersive dystopia, whether the hybrid plants that shimmer and shimmy like jellyfish, or the frills and membranes within Darius’ drone, or even the insectoid monstrosities that are meant to be Citadel ships. It is mesmerizing to behold all right, and definitely way more interesting than the story or for that matter the characters within.
Pity indeed that the storytelling is both too simplistic and dense at the same time, failing to fully establish the motivations of its key players (such as Camellia or Jonas) and rachet up tension or anticipation as it trudges towards the inevitable confrontation with the Citadels from whom Camellia and her father were fleeing. There is much potential in the set-up, and more so in the rich performance by Chapman as our titular protagonist, but neither is fully realised despite a generous two-hour runtime.
So consider this fair warning – though it is visually impressive, chances are ‘Vesper’ will come off dull and tedious for the casual viewer. That it looks this polished in spite of its budget is an achievement no doubt, but one hopes that it could have been a lot more satisfying story-wise. Except for arthouse science-fiction connoisseurs, this will probably be no more than empty spectacle for everyone else.
(Visually impressive but narratively bereft, 'Vesper' is good only for arthouse science fiction connoisseurs)
Review by Gabriel Chong