(For Day 1 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt suggested taking inspiration from some old book covers here. Instead of the more fanciful options, I latched onto some mushrooms on the cover of Guillaume Sicard’s Histoire naturelle des champignons comestibles et vénéneux, apparently a guide to edible mushrooms, which brought to mind this fungus-heavy film.)

The old cliché “Life finds a way”
Omits the struggle and decay,
The mounds of death that pave that way
And grieve the sentient soul.

It would be nice if sacrifice
Were not the customary price,
If seeds could sprout without the vice
Of being buried in a hole.

We often can’t see what we plant,
But wishes do take time to grant.
Seeds that grow where hope is scant
Are always worth the toll.

MPA rating: Not Rated (right on the line between PG-13 and R, due to brief violence)

All science fiction films try to sell their world, whether it be some alternate history or futuristic metropolis, but few dystopias are as visually convincing as Vesper, a French-Lithuanian co-production made in English for wider appeal. Set in a ruined landscape where biotechnology fuels everything from lab-grown slaves to bacteria-powered electricity generators, this society is split between wealthy elite conclaves we never get to see and the rural desperation of subsistence colonies reliant on the supply of single-yield seeds for their food crops. Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) is a young teen with a knack for biotech, who finds a wounded girl (Rosy McEwen) from one of the elite Citadels and sees her as a chance to break out from the hardship into which she was born, much to the displeasure of her controlling uncle (Eddie Marsan).

Vesper excels in its realism in large part because so much of it is real, having shot in the misty forests of Lithuania rather than against Hollywood’s all-too-common green screen. It adds a lot to the atmosphere, a dirty and moist landscape rife with strange, blood-sucking plants and breathing trees. With its hopeful female protagonist and her private greenhouse of plants, the film definitely seems to draw inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but its story and visual aesthetic are its own. The extent of its plant-based future is also fascinating, such as a weapon that spreads a slime mold over every surface and then vaporizes it into poison gas.

While the film is praiseworthy, its plot doesn’t seem to know where to go by the end, settling for a symbolic conclusion rather than any kind of closure for its heroine. Chapman and McEwen are both promising talents, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went on to buzzier roles as Anya Taylor-Joy or Thomasin McKenzie have. Marsan brings menace and a latent pathos to the villainous uncle, while Richard Brake has a unique gravitas as Vesper’s quadriplegic father Darius, who is able to speak and follow Vesper through a floating drone with a Wilson-style face drawn on it. While its visuals are more interesting than the largely depressing narrative, Vesper is a must-see for fans of unique dystopias.

Best line: (Darius) “Oh Vesper, you don’t know the cost of dreams.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
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