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Fantastic Fest Review: ‘Vesper’ merely sprinkles the seeds for an enticing scifi saga

The elements are all correct in this passionately rendered dystopian story, but the calculus is off.
Credit: IFC Films

TEXAS, USA — Like the grimy wastelands where “Vesper” is set, the modern landscape of scifi/fantasy storytelling can be an inexplicably cruel place. Superhero movies continue saturating the marketplace, folding the genre’s viability in on itself and relegating its most innovative projects to the overcrowded realm of TV. 

It’s often the case, too, that we think we want originality because we’re so starved of it – particularly on the big screen – only to neglect giving them much of a chance when a true non-franchise adventure comes around. Countless movies have mounted brave efforts to pull viewers just a little bit away from the MCU’s gravitational pull, including the Hugh Jackman noir “Reminiscence,” the Tom Hanks heartbreaker “Finch,” and the Chris Pratt actioneer “The Tomorrow War.” It’s true: Enlisting a marquee name isn’t as reliable a path to mainstream cultural relevance as it used to be. 

Nor is being on the world’s biggest streaming service; among the various recent original genre films to debut on Netflix before being forgotten by Sunday night is “Synchronic,” “Space Sweepers,” “The Old Guard,” “Horse Girl,” “Tau,” “Oxygen,” “Stowaway,” “The Midnight Sky”... need I go on? The issue isn’t quality; many are worth your time. But it serves to show how a bounty of fresh stories leaning in new directions only makes today’s viewers want to cling to familiarity even tighter, no matter how unchallenged they are by a zombified Dr. Strange or Thor caught in a love triangle with a sentient axe and hammer. It was just a few weeks ago, after all, that George Miller’s massively scaled romance “Three Thousand Years of Longing” emphasized how hard it is even for harbingers of huge genre success stories to convince the masses their more idiosyncratic works are worth a theater ticket. 

The box office triumph of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is the major 2022 asterisk, and even Daniels’ breakthrough feels like it’s compensating for the rest of the year’s original genre offerings, whether they unfold in multiverses or post-apocalyptic wildernesses. 

That includes “Vesper,” a carefully manicured but bluntly imagined tale of dystopias and despots bravely seeking to disrupt the power imbalance of modern genre movie-watching. It’s an ambitious effort from creative collaborators Bruno Samper and Kristina Buozyte – who codirected the film, and cowrote it along with Brian Clark – unable to make good on a compelling opening statement: the image of a young, motherless scavenger picking through what’s left of a human race that looks to be in its last days. 

Over the next two hours “Vesper” will follow this upstart girl (played by Raffiella Chapman, in too static a mode) as she fights for a better future from the ground-level perspective of someone weighed down by the past. Here’s a tip: Don’t pay much mind to the lengthy preamble that establishes this movie’s world, one whose conflicts and hierarchies ring louder when they’re on the periphery. It may make it overwhelming to understand our protagonist’s mission, but it also underscores the exasperation that defines “Vesper” as much as the Mad Libs-style narrative blueprinting it subscribes to. “We deserve better than what we’ve had,” Samper and Buozyte appear to be saying with their film, one coated with a dour mood placing it in stark contrast to other films of its ilk. It’s a rally cry their eponymous heroine might as well utter, but the filmmakers are a touch too timid to suggest what “better” looks like beyond broad declarations about the value of community and the cost of outsiderdom. 

Part of the problem, ironically enough, is how committed “Vesper” is to showing off its most standout elements. Buozyte and Samper clearly understand the power of an image – octopus-like fortresses lumber in the distance; strange ships zip by overhead; tactile plants glow, dance, greet and infect – but to the point of story-suffocating emphasis. “Vesper” commits to a deliberate pace as we're guided through these moving exhibits of visual peculiarities, and while there’s something to be said for such a movie that doesn’t try to find punchlines in its everyone-for-themselves setting, it also threatens to turn “Vesper” into an unconvincing ordeal. 

The world-building details of “Vesper” are so strongly insisted upon that the story actually being threaded through them comes across as half-sketched by comparison. It becomes all too easy to see (or perhaps too difficult to ignore) how typical the plot at its core is: the faraway Citadels as unattainable oasis, the bargain-bin swelling of orchestral strings, the outcast as the fair-skinned elf to Vesper’s tribe of mere mortals. The film’s various narrative pieces are just one creative turn of the dial away from “Vesper” not being all that original at all, which wouldn’t be a problem if the movie managed to evolve its quiet-spoken tone and sporadic heartaches into something more involving. 

Instead, there isn’t much fertile ground upon which this gorgeously conceptualized movie can fully differentiate itself. I wanted to know more about Vesper, her dreams and preoccupations. I wanted to know more about her world, not through tropey terms but the societal structures that assert themselves before vanishing too quickly. I wanted to see more of the way nature is reclaiming its place, instead of merely being impressed that this movie looks to have been shot in nature and not on a stage.

Now how’s that for twisted? A passionate original scifi film more tangible than some of this year’s costliest blockbusters feels like it should have gone the way of the TV miniseries. Go figure. Sometimes I wonder if we live in a cultural dystopia of our own making. 

"Vesper" is not rated. It releases in theaters and on on-demand platforms from IFC Films on Friday. Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes. 

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

Directed by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper; written by Buozyte, Samper and Brian Clark. 




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