While many imagine futuristic worlds require expensive sets and massive special effects, there’s been a long thriving indie sci-fi industry. Stripping down on the spectacle allows most directors to focus on the character and complex world-building. For Vesper, which recently played Fantastic Fest 2022 before releasing in theaters and VOD this week, these ideas burst from the screen. Directors Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper not only build a uniquely cynical world but populate it with fundamental sci-fi questions that strike at the heart of our culture today.
For Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), struggle defines her life. She not only must survive in the post-apocalypse but looks after her paraplegic father (Richard Blake). While he accompanies her with a robot drone, there are few ways he can assist besides giving her advice. During a fateful trip, Vesper discovers a young woman named Camellia (Rosy McEwen) needs assistance. Yet saving Camellia puts Vesper in the crosshairs of her abusive and power-hungry Uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan).
Vesper quickly establishes itself as a unique visual adventure with its setting. Set primarily in bogs and marshes, Buozyte & Samper provides plenty of unique visuals despite a muted color palette. The literally “squishy” nature of the environment begins to infect every design, from clothing to the tactile nature of creatures within the world. Even the floating drone features a design that would be at home in a Croenberg feature.
This world-building helps establish a hopelessness that infects the rest of the film. This presentation makes it obvious that the stakes are extremely high. The dangerous world they inhabit threatens to kill them at every turn. In fact, the limited CG used helps add these details with unique fauna and creatures in nearly every shot. The top-tier creature design further adds to the dreamlike atmosphere of Vesper, pushing us to examine the otherworldly images on-screen.
Beyond the incredible world of Vesper, there are three performances that drive the narrative. Chapman feels like a true find, as she simply dominates the film. Few performers this young can be essential to the success of a film like Vesper, yet Chapman dominates every scene. Even in her quiet moments, she displays a control of emotion and nuance that radiates. She excels when paired with Marsan, who brings a quiet scary nature to the film. The unease he brings to the atmosphere of Vesper becomes infectious in its own right. A truly villainous turn from Marsan becomes a highlight of the story.
Finally, confining Blake to a bed feels like malpractice on the surface. However, the minute you hear Blake speak through a robot, it becomes clear only someone so skilled with creating meaning behind their eyes could play this role. Blake’s vocal eccentricities serve Vesper well. Yet the moments of Chapman and Blake locking eyes in their shack lead to the film’s moving moments.
When Vesper occasionally struggles, one can point to a lack of narrative purpolsion. While the world and individual characters pull us into the world, Buozyte & Samper patiently build out sequences. However, this comes across as indulgent stretching at times, instead of allowing the film to tell its story in direct visuals. These scenes certainly add texture, but its hard to ignore that Vesper would benefit from another five or ten minutes off its runtime.
Vesper gets to showcase a unique mastery of storytelling. Indie sci-fi stands out as a genre comprised of failures and successes. Simple issues that befall many of these kinds of films will sink them before they can impress the audience. Yet Buozyte & Samper hit a homerun with Vesper, crafting a unique visual world in the process. With Chapman adding a pull-on-your heartstrings performance, Vesper stands out within the sub-genre.