Vesper review: Sci-fi horror is Hunger Games without the games

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Vesper is a dystopian sci-fi feature that dazzles visually, but fails to bring much new to the genre, at times playing like The Hunger Game with no games, just hunger.

Vepser is set in a grim future that the film calls “The New Dark Ages”. Via lengthy onscreen scroll, what happened to the world is explained, and as ever, we’re our own worst enemy.

As to avoid ecological crisis, future humanity invests in genetic technology, but rather than fix, the the tech destroys, creating organisms that wipe out plants, animals, and ultimately us.

Those who survive live in citadels where all is well, while the rest exist on seeds that have been coded by the rich to provide just one harvest for the poor. But one outsider – a teenage girl names Vesper – might possess the key to turning things round.

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What is Vesper about?

Vesper is downbeat and grim. Both the film, and the title character at the heart of the story. When we meet her, Vesper is searching for food, waiting for her missing mother to return, and desperately trying to keep her poorly father alive.

She has a flying drone for company, and experiments to keep her busy, with Vesper desperately trying to find a solution to the food shortage, via experiments conducted in a grubby greenhouse.

But Vepser faces other issues, most notably the advances of her uncle Jonas, who rules over his nearby village with a fist of iron, and wants the youngster to join his stable of “breeder” girls. Enabling the film to come down hard not just inequality in the future, but also the twisted patriarchy that springs up.

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Vesper spurns him, but also needs his help, with Jonas the go-between when exchanging blood for seeds from the citadel. Meaning the scenes they share are infused with danger and tension.

There’s hope from above

With time running out for her Dad, everything changes in a flash thanks to a glider that comes crashing down from the sky, carrying citadel citizens.

Vesper rescues survivor Camellia (Rosy McEwan), nurses her back to health, and feeds her the juiciest worms she can find. In exchange for Vesper’s help, Camellia offers to take both father and daughter to the citadel by way of a thank you.

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The pair initially quarrel, but eventually connect, and soon a friendship forms. Though Camellia is carrying around a dark secret; one that threatens Vesper’s life, and precipitates a potentially deadly confrontation with her uncle.

Vesper has epic world-building

Vesper is a small story, featuring just a handful of characters. But the world-building by directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper (from a script they wrote with Brian Clark) is on a truly epic scale.

While Vesper is foraging in the foreground, huge landscapes fill the rest of the screen, illustrating the devastation that has ruined the land.

And that land is fascinating, the soil filled with beautiful and unique creatures. The visuals become even more impressive during a visit to that greenhouse, where bioluminescence replaces the greens and browns that thus far have dominated the film’s palette.

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Combined with a stunning Dan Levy score that underpins those pictures, Vesper is a dazzling feast for both the ears and eyes.

Good actors delivering dodgy dialogue

Raffiella Chapman has a tough job playing Vesper, as the character is somewhat one-note, in-keeping with her predicament. There are times when the dialogue doesn’t help, her robot friend talking in cliches (“You don’t know the cost of dreams”), and her bonding moments with Carmellia failing to ring true.

But Chapman nevertheless imbues the character with the grit and determination required of such a hero, even if she doesn’t always convince as a genius scientist.

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Chapman’s best scenes are those shared with Eddie Marsan, who absolutely dominates proceedings as Jonas, a monstrous man who casts a terrifying shadow over dystopia.

The Verdict – is Vesper good?

Indeed, Vesper is at its best when Vesper and Jonas go toe-to-toe, the actors lighting up the screen as the idealogical battle they are waging turns physical.

Trouble is, their electrifying scenes aside, the film fails to bring anything new to the genre, with the aforementioned Hunger Games an obvious touchstone, and films like A Boy and His Dog, Children of Men, and The Road influencing both the look and tone of the film, while telling a more compelling story.

That said, Vesper builds to a genuinely affecting climax, one where the stakes couldn’t be higher, with humanity’s future hanging in the balance. And it ends with an equally haunting final image; a shot that offers a welcome note of optimism amidst the cynicism that had previously weighed the film down.

Vesper was reviewed at Fantastic Fest and hits U.S. screens this Friday (September 30), while in the U.K. it’s in cinemas and on digital October 21.