It’s the New Dark Ages and the world has devolved to mimic a YA novel’s class system with the poor left to fend for themselves in desolate wastelands while the rich remain protected in Citadels sprinkled throughout their expanse. Animals are dead. Plants are dead. Most humans are dead. To survive means scraping by with what few seeds you purchase from the cities, each lasting only one season. The cost is the blood of children and why those with power in the swamps procreate as an occupation. Jonas (Eddie Marsan) is one such man, lording over a farm of his own deformed children wielded as blood banks and babymakers. It’s why his brother Darius (Richard Brake) left to raise his daughter Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) in the woods alone.
Unfortunately for them, however, life proves even harder. Vesper’s mother has left to join the so-called Pilgrims—mute wanderers who collect junk on sleds to drag back wherever it is they live. And Darius is paralyzed due to an injury sustained fighting for the Citadel, his severance nothing but a floating droid head that Vesper has connected to his biology so he can speak and move through it. She must therefore scavenge for food or trade blood to her uncle for what little he’ll agree to give them unless her dream of cracking the genetic code of those seeds (making them fertile again) finally pays off. It’s why she experiments with organic material, creating new forms of flora that might eventually bear literal fruit to eat.
Directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper (who co-write with Brian Clark) present the squalor of this life from the start as Vesper and the droid journey to a secret spot guarded by what we assume are the decomposed bones of a relative sitting in a chair. The production value and aesthetic are gorgeous—the environments dark, gooey, and bioluminescent, the clothes ragged yet flowing with fabric face shields and wide-mouthed necks turning people into unfamiliar creatures walking the earth. We meet Jugs (lab-created, human-like beings built as cattle and used as slaves), discover that liquified bacteria is the energy source for electronics, and watch as gliders fly through the sky. Vesper feels like a different world as a result, dressing Lithuania up as our dystopian future.
Suddenly everything changes. Someone breaks into Vesper’s home, stealing their bacteria and leaving Darius without the machinery necessary to operate his core life functions. She’s forced to meet with Jonas in the hope he’ll help. It’s there that the bulk of the exposition is presented in an efficient yet violent manner while he reminds his niece that she can move in with them and “serve” him like the other women whose blood is no longer young enough to be worth selling. It’s on her way back home that she sees a glider crashing before stumbling upon a woman (Rosy McEwen’s Camellia) passed out and being consumed by the carnivorous lifeforms that have proven hearty enough to stay alive. She’s from the Citadel and might be their ticket out.
Can Camellia help them escape this hell? Can Vesper unlock the seeds and end world hunger? Will Jonas let us find out if either is possible before barging in to take both women under his domineering control? These are the big questions looming above the film while smaller ones dealing with the dynamic between parents and children (Buozyte and Samper dedicate Vesper to their “mothers and fathers”) unfold on the ground courtesy of strong character development. There’s a constant comparison point between Darius and Jonas and how they protect and use their children respectively. Add Camellia’s father Elias (Edmund Dehn) into the fold and the concept of parentage versus ownership comes into focus, exposing mankind’s undying quest for power that forever sacrifices future sustainability for present comfort.
Will anyone care if Vesper achieves her goal? Why use her discovery for the betterment of everyone when greed and opportunism could position its strength for personal advancement at the expense of the rest? The film becomes a morality tale of sorts as a result with adults proving their worth insofar as possessing a willingness to save or destroy the next generation. And Vesper stands in the middle, still under the belief that people will do the right thing if asked. She sees her uncle as a desperate man whose malice is a byproduct of his circumstances rather than something he relishes. She wants to save everyone no matter the cost of trying—an idealistic fantasy this nightmarish life is soon to expose as an impossibility.
Loved ones must die. If this isn’t a war in the usual sense of the word that’s only because that fight ended long ago. This revolution is therefore fought without intent by those like Elias and Vesper creating new ways to sustain their species without a desire to profit off their discoveries. So don’t expect flashbacks or explanations. The mythology at Vesper‘s back is purely about atmosphere and motivation. Watching the Citadel’s skull-headed soldiers hunt with a mysterious, organic substance that spreads like algae before aerosolizing as a weapon is merely a cool visual set-piece that enhances the mood to let drama shine above action. We don’t even need to know what the giant structures in the mud are. Only that one girl can restart nature despite them.
Some may find themselves disappointed with the lack of that very specific context, but I’d argue learning it would only bog down the runtime and distract from the emotion of watching Vesper exist within its obviously harrowing constraints. Chapman handles it very well, too—her ability to authentically live this sci-fi reality inherently allows us to never question its veracity. All we need to know is that which affects her daily life along with the resonant love and loyalty of family and friends who are willing to give their lives for hers rather than take it to preserve their own. The film zooms in to project humanity’s struggle onto Vesper. With one gust of wind (and some tragic losses), health and prosperity can be hers (and ours) again.
Vesper hits limited release and VOD on September 30.