Vesper (2022) Movie Review from Eye for Film

vespers
“A story that is ultimately about thinking differently, changing the way we direct our attention and resources to open up the possibility of renewal.” | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

In order to live something, we must first dream it. When it came to dreaming the future, the visionaries of 20th-century science fiction opened the doors to the space race, advances in computing and virtual reality, and a range of medical technologies, and helped the public get involved to grapple with what was going on in labs and labs among academic thinkers, allowing it to adapt to change. But towards the end of the century, science fiction faltered. It wasn’t that there weren’t any good writers left – it was that the future had become far too uncertain to see clearly; or that nobody wanted to look. Popular cinema, which never cared so much about the big ideas as long as it could find an audience, gave us a lot of dystopias. Every scientifically educated person knew – knows – the coming crisis. What nobody could answer was: What happens afterwards?

As part of the new generation of sci-fi stories emerging to fill that void, Vesper may contain elements that feel like pure fantasy — a risk portraying what Arthur C. Clarke called sufficiently advanced technology – but it’s smart, and it’s serious. Its young protagonist appeals to young viewers who will grow up in a world much tougher than the one we know today – a world ravaged by climate change and drained by capitalism, but nonetheless a world in which there is still room for hope.

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That protagonist is Vesper, played by Raffiella Chapman, who excelled in Homebound and was just as impressive here. Vesper is a young teenager who lives in a remote house in the woods with her father (Richard Brake), who is bedridden and on a respirator after an accident at work. As compensation, he has received a drone, which he uses as a telepresence device to accompany Vesper on scavenging missions and do whatever it takes to protect her. An efficient forager, she knows how to avoid the various deadly plants and fungi in the area, but there are more dangers – not least her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan) and his crew of semi-wild offspring. He makes money off these kids, drawing their blood and selling it to the people of the towering, unassailable citadel (where it’s believed to be used to promote longevity, which has been shown to work on mice), but of course he needs women to produce her and he has Vesper in mind for that role.

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In some ways very different from the traditional sci-fi protagonist, this young misfit heroine nonetheless has two familiar traits. She is scientifically gifted and experiments in synthetic biology in a lab hidden deep in the forest; and she is determined to better her lot. She dreams of selling her skills to the Citadel in order to get a pass to the privileged life for herself and her father, but she has no way of contacting the people there until fate seems to please her, when a small ship appears in the middle of the forest. She rescues a passenger lying dazed nearby and hopes to use the encounter to give herself a future – but the passenger has a secret, and Vesper’s world will change in ways it never could could have imagined.

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The first thing that most viewers will notice about the film is its superb visual worldbuilding, which would be impressive even if it weren’t accomplished on a tiny budget. The little wooden house that Vesper lives in has seen better days; The forest landscape is barren and a testament to the difficulty of surviving here, but it is also teeming with new life forms that pose dangers to the unwary and benefits to those who know them well. Predatory plants gather under the trees with snake tendrils and spines that produce chemicals that induce sleep or are instantly fatal. Some of them glow, and Vesper’s lab is full of beautiful creations with odd tropes. Working with a vibrant touchscreen-style display, it reminds us that this isn’t just a world of loss – it also contains new technologies, like those that built the citadel it hopes to reach.

Credit goes to the casting team of Des Hamilton, Donatus Simukauskas, and Georgia Topley, who packed the film with supporting cast and extras with genetic variations — particularly hypertelorism — that one would expect in a depleted population. Exaggerated by seamlessly applied and otherwise hardly noticeable make-up, they don’t appear all that unusual as individuals, but as a group they will at least unsettle the viewer, even if he doesn’t know why. The effect is stronger because the costumes are kept simple, as we are used to from rural dystopias. When it comes to the costumes of the citadel dwellers, designers Christophe Pidre and Florence Scholtes play around, creating garments that genuinely look like they are from another world, perfectly combining style and functionality and signaling that these people are used to much higher things hygiene standards.

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All of this detailed, industrious work goes into creating a world that is immersive and all-consuming, a world where we find ourselves much like the crash victim, dependent on Vesper as our guide. Nothing wobbles or feels like it’s just there for show, and it all combines to support a story that’s ultimately about thinking differently, changing the way we focus our attention and resources direct to open up the possibility of renewal. In the small house and in the thicket of trees, directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper naturally keep the camera close, but above all they also do so in a context where it violates the rules of traditional filmmaking. Only in the final scene do we see the vastness of this world, its vastness, its possibilities, just as Vesper is undergoing her final psychological transformation. As we look beyond the trees and see the forest (and beyond), we are invited to look beyond the bleak prophecies of our own future. What lies beyond the horizon is mysterious once again, and who knows where the wind will take us?

Reviewed on: September 26, 2022