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In a bio-engineered dystopia, 'Vesper' finds seeds of hope

Raffiella Chapman stars as Vesper, a 13-year-old bio-hacker.
Courtesy of IFC Films
Raffiella Chapman stars as Vesper, a 13-year-old bio-hacker.

Hollywood apocalypses come in all shapes and sizes – zombified, post-nuclear, plague-ridden – so it says something that the European eco-fable Vesper can weave together strands from quite a few disparate sci-fi films and come up with something that feels eerily fresh.

Lithuanian filmmaker Kristina Buozyte and her French co-director Bruno Samper begin their story in a misty bog so bleak and lifeless it almost seems to have been filmed in black-and-white. A volleyball-like orb floats into view with a face crudely painted on, followed after a moment by 13-yr-old Vesper (Raffiella Chapman), sloshing through the muck, scavenging for food, or for something useful for the bio-hacking she's taught herself to do in a makeshift lab.

Vesper's a loner, but she's rarely alone. That floating orb contains the consciousness of her father (Richard Brake), who's bedridden in the shack they call home, with a sack of bacteria doing his breathing for him. So Vesper talks to the orb, and it to her. And one day, she announces a remarkable find in a world where nothing edible grows anymore: seeds.

She hasn't really found them, she's stolen them, hoping to unlock the genetic structure that keeps them from producing a second generation of plants. It's a deliberately inbred characteristic – the capitalist notion of copyrighted seed stock turned draconian — that has crashed the world's eco-system, essentially bio-engineering nature out of existence.

In <em>Vesper,</em> genetic experiments have wiped out all of Earth's edible plants.
/ Courtesy of IFC Films
Courtesy of IFC Films
In Vesper, genetic experiments have wiped out all of Earth's edible plants.

Those who did the tampering are an upper-class elite that's taken refuge in cities that look like huge metal mushrooms – "citadels" that consume all the planet's available resources – while what's left of the rest of humankind lives in sackcloth and squalor.

Does that sound Dickensian? Well, yes, and there's even a Fagin of sorts: Vesper's uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), who lives in a sordid camp full of children he exploits in ways that appall his niece. With nothing else to trade for food, the kids donate blood (Citadel dwellers evidently crave transfusions) and Jonas nurtures his kids more or less as he would a barnyard full of livestock.

Vesper's convinced she can bio-hack her way to something better. And when a glider from the Citadel crashes, and she rescues a slightly older stranger (pale, ethereal Rosy McEwan) she seems to have found an ally.

The filmmakers give their eco-disaster the look of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, the bleak atmospherics of The Road, and a heroine who seems entirely capable of holding her own in The Hunger Games. And for what must have been a fraction of the cost of those films, they manage some seriously effective world-building through practical and computer effects: A glider crash that maroons the Citadel dweller; trees that breathe; pink squealing worms that snap at anything that comes too close.

And in this hostile environment, Vesper remains an ever-curious and resourceful adolescent, finding beauty where she can — in a turquoise caterpillar, or in the plants she's bio-hacked: luminescent, jellyfish-like, glowing, pulsing, and reaching out when she passes.

All made entirely persuasive for a story with roots in both young-adult fiction, and real-world concerns, from tensions between haves and have-nots to bio-engineering for profit — man-made disasters not far removed from where we are today.

Vesper paints a dark future with flair enough to give audiences hope, both for a world gone to seed, and for indie filmmaking.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.