Set in “the new dark ages” — a ruined tomorrow in which the engineered viruses and organisms that humanity created in order to stem the planet’s ecological crisis have escaped into the wild and remade life on Earth into a dreary (but awesome) Cronenbergian wasteland full of fleshy droids, bioluminescent critters, and trees whose spores try to suck out your internal tissue while you sleep — Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s “Vesper” has already drawn several comparisons to the likes of “Stalker” and the Andrei Tarkovsky-inspired “Annihilation.” It’s easy to see why.
Told at the somnambulant of a European art film but plotted with the simplicity of a fairy tale, the filmmaking duo’s first feature since 2012’s “Vanishing Waves” offers a dramatically uneven but imaginatively vivid feat of post-apocalyptic world-building that flips the script on so many other stories like it.
Instead of using a variety of unique details to flesh out its familiar dystopian premise about the tension between a rich society of elites — who’ve barricaded themselves within edenic fortresses known as “Citadels” — and the scavengers they’ve abandoned to the mutant wilderness beyond the city walls, “Vesper” blurs that age-old saga of haves and have-nots into a distant backdrop for something more interested in the flora and fauna that have evolved around it.
If humans can have such a profound effect on nature, what effect might nature have on humanity in return? It’s a profound question that Buozyte and Samper’s film complicates with all sorts of intricate and icky special effects, but it’s also a question that “Vesper” rejects on principle to a certain degree, as well. By the time this highly evocative work of low-budget sci-fi arrives at its eye-opening final scene, the clearest takeaway is that our only hope for survival has been coded into us since the beginning of time.
The story “Vesper” tells is a simple one told in broad strokes but saturated in atmosphere. Raffiella Chapman plays the title character, a headstrong 13-year-old scavenger in the Nausicaä vein who lives deep within one of the endless forests that stretch beyond the Citadels (the film was shot in Buozyte’s native Lithuania). By day she rummages through the ruins of the old world, a scout drone piloted by her bedridden father Darius (Richard Broke) — who controls the device through a fleshy white contraption straight out of “Crimes of the Future,” and speaks to Vesper through it in a choked whisper — always hovering by her side. By night, Vesper tinkers with her DIY biotech projects, trying to engineer a crop that hasn’t been programmed to die after a single harvest.
Sometimes she visits her creepy uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), who’s reacted to the end of the world by hoarding supplies and inbreeding his way to a mini fiefdom that’s only interested in its own survival. More compelling are the shrouded Pilgrims who seem to abandon their lives at the drop of a hat and wander towards some unknown promised land. Perhaps Vesper’s absent mother has joined their ranks.
Just don’t expect Buozyte, Samper, and Brian Clark’s cryptic (if conservatively structured) screenplay to answer all of its open questions. “Vesper” is animated by its lingering sense of wonder, which is epitomized by the sheer variety of critters and plant life that it puts on display. Not since “Avatar” has a sci-fi movie been so justifiably infatuated with an ecosystem of its own design.
Buozyte and Samper don’t quite have James Cameron’s budgets, but the intricacy of their imaginations is more than enough to overpower a few dodgy CGI caterpillars. I loved the unexplained husks of old tech that can be seen poking out from the fog in the distance — presumably relics from some of humanity’s previous attempts to engineer their way towards a better world.
Closer and in squirmier detail are the little snake-weasels that burrow out of the ground for a nibble of someone passing by, and the Birdo-like spore guys that latch onto a high-status blonde woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen) once the cruiser she’s on crash lands between Citadels. When Vesper finds her, Camellia offers the girl and her father access to the cities above if they help her get home, but it isn’t long before Jonas catches wind of the news that someone of vast wealth and knowledge has plummeted into his backyard. And he comes with some lore of his own, including an overcomplicated seed-trading business and a humanoid “jug” (Melanie Gaydos), who he encourages his brood to treat like a disposable robot without any feelings just because she was made in a lab. This only seems like a strange aside until the moment it suddenly doesn’t.
“Vesper” thrives in the moments between moments, when the film’s generous running time gives viewers the chance to sink into its semi-synthetic world of tomorrow. The actual story beats are considerably less satisfying, despite every performance hinting at rich layers of meaning and possibility the movie never has the chance to explore (Chapman in particular makes a believable lead, the young actress allowing Vesper’s rugged optimism to shine through even the most harrowing scenes).
While the world-building is extraordinary, the part of it we get to see is rather small, and this movie often feels stuck in place as a result — spinning its wheels into the forest bed and waiting to go somewhere. The moments during which “Vesper” is effectively able to dramatize the ideas that it so vibrantly exudes are few and far between, although Vesper’s hope (and the maternal bond that develops between she and Camellia) helps give shape to the story and provide for a handful of heartrending moments.
Most crucial is the hard-won hope they kindle within each other, evidence of which is baked into every damp and verdant corner of this movie. “Oh Vesper,” Jonas tells her, “you don’t know the cost of dreams.” But one look at her surroundings is all it takes to understand that she knows the cost of losing them.
IFC Films will release “Vesper” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 30.