I was a few minutes late to my screening of the dystopian sci-fi cheapie Vesper, so I missed the opening scroll that explained exactly which doomsday scenario its few scattered characters had survived. According to Wikipedia, the film is set in “The New Dark Ages,” triggered by bio-engineered plants & viruses that escaped from the lab and into the wild, mutating the Natural world that scientists were attempting to save from Climate Change. Basically, in the near future we take the “Hack the planet!” messaging from Hackers a little too literally. Whatever table-setting paragraph I missed at the start of the film didn’t end up mattering too much, though, since its interest in old-fashioned sci-fi worldbuilding does not stop there. Vesper is essentially a feature-length worldbuilding exercise, one that invests all of its energy in exploring the lush, biohacked landscapes of its Apocalyptic Vegetation futureworld, with little attention left for the characters who have to hack their way through it. And for a certain type of hardline sci-fi nerd, that escape to an intricately detailed otherworld is going to be immensely satisfying no matter what happens there.
Plot-wise, this is a Young Women in STEM story. The titular Vesper is a plucky teen who’s incredibly gifted at biochemistry, stubbornly determined to biohack her way out of the Biohack Apocalypse. Camping in the woods between a petty-dictatorship barter town run by her creepy uncle and an aristocratic “citadel” with a “No Poors Allowed” sign posted to its gates, Vesper is a fairly typical YA heroine: the only freethinker who’s ruggedly independent & smart enough to rescue her dystopian world from its downward spiral. She’s more of a video game avatar than a fully formed character, since her main function is to lead us through the overgrown vegetation and crumbling urban infrastructure of the “world of shit” she calls home. There are plenty of contemporaries to Vesper‘s style of low-key, lived-in sci-fi, from the surreal vegetative mutations of Annihilation to the violent Natural reclamation of urban spaces in The Girl with all the Gifts to the analog sci-fi throwback of Prospect. Only this movie exists in this specific world, though, so it’s more important that Vesper give us the full guided tour of her far-out greenhouse creations than it is for her to stir up meaningful drama with her dying father, her creepy uncle, or her fellow scrappy rebels.
Vesper can feel a little humorless and drawn out at times, but it’s shrewd about inspiring awe & disgust with limited resources. This French-Lithuanian production was shot in an uncanny English dialect as a bid for wide international appeal, but I’m not sure that it ever had a chance to make it beyond a few festival raves & VOD streaming deals. Its detailed worldbuilding impulses are tied to such a literary sci-fi tradition that it was never going to fully break out of its nerdy niche, at least not without giving its Wilson volleyball drone sidekick a bunch of James Corden-voiced one-liners (as opposed to the defeated wheezings of Vesper’s dying father). Its ambitions are super admirable, though, and it accomplishes a lot creatively even if its distribution has been limited. Shot without artificial green screen environments, Vesper explores a lived-in, tactile dystopian world that should be a major draw for anyone who’s at all nerdy about world-building and practical effects. It feels vibrantly alive – brimming with mutated plant tendrils, radioactive glow worms, and A.I. creatures made of vintage medical equipment. You just won’t find much of that vibrant life in the drama or dialogue.