Fantasia 2022 Vesper review
The dystopian future. Who among us cinephiles has never seen a single science-fiction story in a distant, or not so distant future when the world as we know as devolved into a society we’d never want to be a part of. They are the stuff of our nightmares. The robots have taken over and control everything. The dictators who we democratically elected into office crushed all opposition and rule with an iron fist via a police state. We finally made first contact, only the aliens were of the less benevolent kind and humanity must free itself from slavery. Call it speculative fiction. Given the world’s current climate, literally, the concept of eco systems crashing and destroying human societies is another topic ripe for speculative fiction. Enter Vesper, a French-Belgian-Lithuanian production.
From the writing and directing duo of Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, Vesper follows the survivalist exploits of its titular heroine (Raffiella Chapman). A 13-year-old girl, she does everything around the run down house in the woods where she and her ailing father (Richard Brake) live. The outside world is mortally treacherous since the planet’s eco-systems went berserk due to human interference. New flora abounds that kills unsuspecting humans. Many people perish in grisly ways. There exist pockets of humanity that survive in seemingly prosperous citadels founded around the world. Vesper and her father are not so fortunate, but the girl works diligently to synthetically create new plants and food seeds for their survival. Her world is rocked (as if it hadn’t been already) when a citadel based two-person aircraft crash lands. Vesper rescues one of its survivors, a woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen). Perhaps in return Camellia will help Vesper’s family seek refuge in a citadel.
Describing Vesper is an interesting exercise. It’s a film that changes pace for each of its 3 acts. Ultimately, they come together to tell a reasonably coherent story, yet the disparate pacing and plot points the directors choose to focus on in each act can leave viewers disappointed. If anyone reading this review can’t read between the lines, the main point is that Vesper has a middle act problem. It’s unquestionably the slowest of the three, not to mention it is the least exploratory from a world-building perspective. That in of itself may speak to the picture’s modest budget. It strives for some impressive money shots on several occasions, but the fact of the matter is Vesper was not made with Universal, Warner Brothers or Disney money.
The damning question therefore may be: does a film with big ideas start strong to hook the viewer and risk slowing down later? Or is the better tactic to save the best material for later? The opening sequence to Vesperis, all in all, gripping. Panoramic wide shots of the terrains the protagonist must traverse to go from one place to another are terrific. The set design for strange, massively tall structures that look like buildings made of wood strikes the imagination. Even the way in which Vesper interacts with her father intrigues and amazes. Somehow the man’s conscious is encased in a little floating metal box that communicates through a speaker. It’s never explained how the technology works, or what the fleshy substance inside the case is, yet the oddity suffices to grab attention.
Having not looked at the cast list before heading in, the sudden appearance of Eddie Marsan is another surprise. He plays Vesper’s uncle. A harsh man, he lives nearby at a farm where food seeds are cultivated and sold to the citadel. Another side business involves somehow using the blood of humans to help citadels bio-engineer people for labour. Marsan is stern and gritty in the role. A master of his modest land who governs with the proverbial whip.
According to what has been written so far, Buozyte and Samper deliver a visually imaginative, thought-provoking film about survival, sustenance, and the spirit of innovation. Well, mostly but not completely. The middle act drags things down to a snail’s pace. Gone are the explorations and discoveries into the woods, replaced with heart-to-heart moments between Vesper and Camellia. The latter begins to fill the role of the mother our heroine lost many years ago. Vesper clings to the hope of finding her one day. Discussion of the animals who used to populate Earth, showcasing some of Vesper’s genetically engineered plants, debates about how to get to the citadel, attempts to crack the DNA code of seeds to create food for everyone, etc. It isn’t that none of it is interesting. The issue is that it ruins the pace.
When the third act begins the movie suddenly throws a bunch of intense action at the screen. It’s decently staged and executed (with a less than subtle nod to Star Wars) but feels just as much at odds with the second act as the latter did with the first. Characters are blasted at, certain plants get violent, an inexplicable yellow goo transforms into poisonous fumes. The final half hour is an action thriller. Interspersing the action beats with the methodical drama would result in a more balanced film.
Vesper is ambitious. What it lacks are better calibrated ebbs and flows. The highs are cool, the one big, long low is ultimately boring. Today’s food industry is already doing some of the things depicted in the film. Companies research, test, approve, patent, and sell manufactured foods and pesticides. Vesper takes that reality and tosses into the dystopian blender. A shame. The seed of greatness is somewhere in this movie.