by Justine Norton-Kertson
(Warning, this review contains spoilers)
A spherical drone flies onto the screen. Painted on the surface of the drone is a smiley face that reminds me of Wilson the Volleyball. At that point I almost stopped watching that quickly. Thankfully I didn’t. Because while the movie starts slow, it’s not only incredibly good, but is filled with striking settings and visual world building that truly bring this post-apocalyptic, bioengineered world to life with alien-like macro-viruses, bacteria, and parasites. But it’s not all horrors. Glowing plants like bioluminescent flowers light up the night in scenes that show beauty existing in shadows of a grim world.
One thing I appreciate about Vesper is that it doesn’t follow the strict western plot structure. This Lithuanian-French biopunk film with a dash of future fairytale doesn’t start out with any major conflict for the main character to overcome. We simply see the world in which the Vesper lives and hopes and dreams. We learn about her life and the backstory of her world.
While the last half hour of this two hour movie is full of action and suspense, it’s unlike typical western speculative fiction; there’s no obviously discernable hero’s journey, for example. In fact, the main character, Vesper, never really leaves home in any meaningful sense until the very end of the film. There’s also no clear try-fail cycle leading to a climax in which a protagonist defeats some kind of enemy or overcomes obstacles. The enemy, the Citadel hunters, are never really defeated in the film. They simply go away, and that’s due to the actions of a secondary character. At the same time, the main character does accomplish something by the end of the film that will be a game changer on a society-wide scale.
In part because of this departure from typical plot structure, partly because of the skilled world building, and partly because it’s just a really good story, I highly recommend this movie.
Released in the U.S. in September 2022 in English, the backstory for this movie is that humanity tried to use genetics technology to solve planet’s ecological crisis. But they failed on an epic scale. They not only didn’t solve the crisis, but they caused an apocalyptic level event when bioengineered viruses and bacteria escaped and wiped out the planet’s edible plants, animals, and most of the humans.
But this isn’t a low-tech, primitivist post-apocalypse.
The film itself is set in a future some unknown number of years, decades, or even centuries after that apocalypse. The upper class thrives and lives luxuriously in massive, enclosed bubbled cities called “Citadels” where, they bioengineer sub-human slaves called Jugs. Jugs lack any semblance of intelligence, and are programed to be unquestioningly loyal. Like slaves of any time period, they’re forced to do all the shit work that keeps the Citadels running and it’s privileged inhabits living in luxury.
With no animals or edible plants growing wild, those who live outside of these enclosed cities struggle to get by. They buy seeds from the Citadels to grow food and survive. However, those seeds are coded to produce only one harvest; they don’t produce new seeds themselves. This renders the struggling masses completely dependent upon the oligarchs through the constant need for new seeds. Of course, those seeds are expensive, and price increases seem common.
“You don’t just get to give up when things are hard. They’re hard for all of us, but we stay, and we help each other.”
Vesper, the story’s main character, is a thirteen year old genius biohacker. Her mother abandoned her and her father to live with the nomads, who keep their faces veiled and don’t speak. Vesper doesn’t know why her mom left, but she now lives alone with her invalid father, Darius, who was critically injured fighting as a soldier for the Citadels. The ruling class has done nothing to show gratitude for that sacrifice. But Vesper uses her bioengineering skills—and supplies she steals—to keep her father alive. Despite his critical condition, he’s able to have conversations with her through the biomechanical drone from the film’s first scene.
While walking between home and her experimental, greenhouse genetics lab, Vesper discovers a woman lying unconscious on the forest floor. Huge parasite blobs are feeding on her. Some of them are as big as she is.
The woman—who we later learn is named Camellia—appears to be from one of the Citadel cities. Hoping Camellia will reward her by taking her to the Citadel, Vesper rescues Camellia from the parasites and takes the weak and injured woman home with her. There, despite her father’s misgivings, Vesper nurses the unknown woman back to health.
Camellia does, in fact, promise to take Vesper and Darius to her Citadel. There, she claims, they can heal Darius. She wins Vesper’s confidence and trust by using her seemingly magical kiss to bring Darius out of a violent seizure. But Vesper’s hopes are soon dashed when she learns that Camellia isn’t human after all, but rather is an intelligent Jug on the run from the Citadels. Her and her “father” fled because it’s highly illegal to create smart jugs. But Camellia’s died in the shuttle same crash that threw her out into the forest and left her for dead as parasite feed.
Vesper takes Camellia to see her father’s dead body floating in a pond. Camellia is wracked with grief, crying uncontrollably, and seems ready to pack it in and give up on her life. But Vesper hugs her and says, “You don’t just get to give up when things are hard. They’re hard for all of us, but we stay, and we help each other.”
Being the genius biohacker that she is, Vesper discovers that within Camellia’s programmed DNA is the key to unlocking the Citadel seed code. The implications of the discovery are a potential game changer. People outside the Citadels will be able to grow food without having to buy rigged sees from the Citadels. Vesper makes a fatal mistake though when she tells her uncle Jonas—a local strongman who enslaves kids—about the discovery in hopes of earning his favor.
But Jonas, correctly suspecting that Vesper has been stealing from him, rats her out to Citadel hunters who are after Camellia. Vesper and Camellia are forced to flee just before the hunters find the house. As she and Camellia run, Vesper can see and hear the explosion that kills her father and destroys their home.
It doesn’t take long for the hunters to catch up to them, but Camellia sacrifices herself to save Vesper. Using her oddly powerful fairytale-like kiss, she puts Vesper to sleep and hides her. Camellia then finds and turns herself into the hunters, who have no reason to believe Vesper didn’t die in the explosion with her father.
The next morning Vesper wakes up on the forest floor buried in leaves. The coast is clear, so she returns to what used to be her home. Nothing is left but charred earth. There, Vesper plants a few of the unlocked seeds in the ashes of her former life, in the spot where her father was killed. At that moment a family of four other kids, one about Vespers age and the others young children, appear as drones fly over head.
Vesper joins the kids and they all walk off together. They travel for days until they come to a huge tower made of wood beams, planks, and scrap metal lashed together. The nomads are there.
This rather dark movie ends here, but the final scene full of hope for a better future. Vesper climbs the tower. When she gets to the top, she looks out over the treetops hundreds of feet below. She can see the imposing Citadels off in the distance. She takes the rest of the unlocked seeds in her hand and, turning her back to the Citadels, lets the seeds blow away. We see them spread out on the wind toward the distant horizon. We know that the seeds will land and plant over a huge area. For the first time in living memory, food bearing plants will grow wild again.