Saturday, December 9, 2023

Movie Review: ‘Vesper’ is a Beautiful Blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Director: Kristina Buožytė, Bruno Samper

Writers: Kristina Buožytė, Bruno Samper, Brian Clark

Stars: Raffiella Chapman, Eddie Marsan, Rosy McEwen, Richard Brake

Synopsis: Struggling to survive with her father after the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, 13-year-old Vesper must use her wits, strength, and bio-hacking abilities to fight for the future.

You’ve got to love sci-fi films with interesting concepts, and Vesper is certainly in that category. European cinema has so much to offer the genre with its horror-like approach and fantasy-like setting, and this recent film by the Lithuanian/French duo of Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper is one that snuggles nicely into a wide mix of genres. Vesper shows shades of Children of Men and even The Road; a post-apocalyptic world in which mankind has been the master of its own downfall. But this mystical film is more than just a grim vision into a dark future due to the atmospheric European forest and the acting from two of its stars that enhances everything to a high level of bleak brilliance.

Kristina’s earlier films, like 2012’s Vanishing Waves, tend to focus on women and the exploration of their inner worlds while depicting them with the help of fantasy elements – it is a very powerful and effective motif that occurs in her films, and this is more of the same. Vesper tells the tale of how genetically modified technology has failed, which then led to engineered viruses and organisms escaping into the wild and wiping out edible plants, animals, and a huge population of humans. A hierarchy of people living in “citadels” rule this world as small communities of survivors struggle to make ends meet. Here’s where the motif comes in because one of the people struggling to survive is a 13-year-old girl called Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) who must use her wits, strength, and talent for biology in the hopes she can save her and her paralyzed father Darius (Richard Brake).

There is a father-daughter relationship that bubbles up from within and becomes a very prominent aspect of the film; it highlights the power and the importance of having that support system, and the guidance needed to be successful. What makes the pairing interesting is that her father has manifested himself into a flying scout robot with a painted-on smile for good measure added, you know, to make her feel at ease in this trying time. Each actor brings something authentic to the film as well, and for a small cast, that’s mightily impressive. Raffiella Chapman gives a commanding and wonderfully mature performance as Vesper, whereas the calming influence of Rosy McEwen as the mysterious Camellia becomes a great aspect of this parent-child theme. But one man who steals the show every time he appears on the screen – and many screens for that matter –  Eddie Marsan as Jonas, the brutal leader of a nearby survivor settlement and Vesper’s uncle.

Marsan has become one of the most intriguing villainous actors in recent years; always adding an aspect of insanity with him as well as a touch of gentleness – he just has a welcoming and unsuspecting face, but it is this calm demeanor that lulls you into a false sense of security before he commits a heinous act. We should have become aware of this trick by now. The film is told like a fable, and in true fantasy-like fashion, where would the story be without a ruthless villain who wouldn’t think twice about sticking one in you as soon as your back is turned? But there is more to it than that: this mystical tale transcends into a very immersive film that is assisted by a creatively eerie score and some delectable cinematography that enhances this thick European forest and shrouds it with eerie darkness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with the praise slightly because this film is far from perfect. It still has some way to go before it can be considered a top-tier entry in the genre. It is a little rough around the edges, and if you’re not paying close attention to the plot, you could find your mind wandering slightly. It’s the pacing that’s the issue because it’s awfully slow at times; there’s a lot of ambling dialogue and moments of nothing; with scenes often feeling stretched out to fill an empty void. And due to the film being developed on a smaller budget than most, it often feels a little repetitive, seeing as they just keep moving back and forth from one house to another.

This is a film with no over-the-top frills or fancies though; it is a gritty sci-fi that carries as much excitement as any of those Hollywood blockbusters would, and on a fraction of the budget. The fact that this world feels so dark and dingy, and yet has a multitude of technical sophistication; with brilliantly subtle special effects that dazzle with magic as much as they would in the next film. Vesper is a success story for European cinema providing us with enjoyable science fiction films, one that ventures down a notably different path, but one that is intelligently thought-provoking, violent, and full of so much mysticism.

Grade – B-

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