★★★☆☆ In the post-climate apocalypse, society has reverted to a form of feudalism where most people eke out survival in the wasteland while elites, living in Citadels, control the food supply. Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper's fourth collaboration is a sci-fi fairytale whose aesthetics and performances aren't quite matched by a run-of-the mill story.

★★★☆☆

In the post-climate apocalypse, society has reverted to a form of feudalism where most people eke out survival in the wasteland while elites, living in Citadels, control the food supply through genetically-modified seed crops. Writer-directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s fourth collaboration is a sci-fi fairytale whose visceral aesthetics and gripping performances aren’t quite matched by a run-of-the mill story.

In the blasted society of the future, 13-year-old Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) scavenges what she can to keep herself and her father Darius (Richard Brake), who is paralysed and communicates only through a remote drone, alive. A text prologue tells us that in the dying embers of the climate crisis, humanity designed genetically-altered organisms to try to kickstart the ecosystem. Instead it unleashed alien-like plants and fungus throughout the world, hastening our demise and creating an even more hostile world for the survivors.

Near Vesper and Darius’ woodland shack, Darius’ brother Jonas (Eddie Marsan) is the brutal head of a small settlement, peopled exclusively by his own children and a few ‘dugs’ – genetic sub-humans used as slave labour – whose blood he trades for seeds from the Citadel. Marsan is perfectly cast, bringing a trademark calm viciousness to a character who never needs to raise a finger for us to understand that he is capable of great cruelty and calculated violence. Chapman, too, is a gripping presence at the film’s centre, utterly believable as an adolescent who has somehow retained their innocence in this most corrupted of worlds.

This is a future where technology and bodies have merged into uneasy union. The filthy tubes and organic instruments that keep Darius alive are powered by engineered bacteria, while his vest is Giger-esque in its fleshy pipes and tubes. Meanwhile, Dan Levy’s score, all horns and heavy strings, is like sucking mud that pulls us into filthy depths. Amidst the corrupted brown earth and faded yellows of this biomechanical feudalism, there are shades of Children of Men, Alien: Resurrection, and most recently Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, while the bioluminescent creatures that have reclaimed and reshaped nature recall the terrible shimmer of Annihilation.

Yet when Camellia (Rosy McEwan), a Citadel elite, crashes her shuttle in the forest, it is like the arrival some strange forgotten fairy tale. Vesper discovers her unconscious in the woods: covered by alien plants and fungus trying to consume her, it’s like the forest has birthed a supernatural being. Her white-blonde hair, brittle blue eyes, and Alice-esque dress feel utterly alien to the organic world. She also brings with her a quest of sorts that Vesper believes will save her and Darius as well as the world from the tyranny of the Citadels.

It’s at this point where Vesper meets the limits of its storytelling. After having beautifully established its world and characters, Buozyte and Samper fall back on a third act that hews perhaps a little too close to fairy tales for originality’s sake: there is quite literally a beautiful princess, magic beans and a tower reaching into the sky, tropes that have been repeated ad infinitum in post-apocalypse science fiction. Nevertheless, Vesper is throughout a gripping post-apocalypse fable. Despite its mythological derivations, Buozyte and Samper’s world, grounded in blood, mud and viscera, is often uncomfortably close to our own.

Vesper is in cinemas and on digital now.

Christopher Machell