Considering the entire globe is almost totally under house arrest, the arrival of Vivarium might seem like the worst idea in the world. Focused on a couple whose house-hunting gets them stuck in suburbia, all alone, would be bad enough, but then it adds parenting into the mix and everything goes straight to hell. Originated by Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley, Vivarium is as much a satirical take-down of consumerism as it is science-fiction thriller, balancing reason and insanity in equal measure. While it may not be the first thing you’ll want to watch while social distancing, there’s no denying Vivarium’s ability to crawl under your skin.
Happy couple Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) are looking to purchase a home, but find that the market is not being kind. Things seem to change for the better when they step into the offices of suburban development Yonder and meet sales agent Martin (Jonathan Aris). Taking him up on an offer to look at a unit, the two find themselves disturbed by the perpetual sameness which surrounds unit #9; however, every attempt they make to leave leads them straight back to #9. Frustrated and confused, the despondent pair find hope in a box outside the home which contains an infant and a message reading, “raise him and be released.” Forced to raise a child that’s not theirs and with escape seemingly impossible, Gemma and Tom find themselves in a battle for their very lives, their fates tied to the life of the child.
Anyone with children deserves a special warning for how deeply unsettling Vivarium is, not because there’s something Lovecraftian that’ll happen a la Color Out of Space, but because the child is terrifying by applying a different species to the maturation process. Rather than communicate, the child screams at a terrible pitch (something parents of small children deal with constantly), except where a focus on communication (using words) may work with kids in the real world, in Vivarium, it doesn’t. Gemma and Tom are essentially raising their captor, so there is no power struggle as the child possesses all of the control. Cleverly, the film highlights the coming dynamic straight from the jump as it begins with a bit of a nature show: a newborn cuckoo pushes out other newborns and screams to be fed from its “mother.” For the unaware, like this reviewer, the cuckoos are part of a family of birds called Cuculiformes which invade other nests to lay eggs. Then, once hatched, the newborns kick out other babies to be raised by a mother other than their own. From the outside, this is just a sad side of nature as it’s just how the cuckoos function within their ecosystem. This introduction becomes the metaphor upon which the rest of Vivarium takes place as Gemma and Tom become the parents of someone else’s child. The largest difference being that other birds don’t realize that the cuckoo isn’t there bird, but Gemma and Tom are reminded at every single moment that this child is something foreign and beyond their control. So, if you’ve ever dealt with a child who’s upset, enjoying a bit of mimicry, or just otherwise seems somehow foreign to you, Vivarium is going to hit all of those buttons and send your tension through the roof. Frankly, Vivarium is the closest film to terrifying me of children since 2019’s Freaks.
All of this is well and good, but what about the social commentary Vivarium is attempting to examine. This plays out in several ways literally and metaphorically, much like the actual development itself. When suburbia took over, there was a cookie-cutter approach used in order to be both cost-effective and attractive. The design of Yonder mimics this, but to an extreme. From the outside, the houses are literally identical to each other in design, color, and size. The clouds are perfectly cloud-shaped, the sky a beautiful blue, and the sun is always shining brightly. The perfectness in the design of Yonder itself unsettles as anything so hyper-meticulous can’t be right. From Gemma and Tom’s perspectives, Yonder is an endless sea of uniformity, a maze of green where #9 is the center and the exit is lost. From the audience’s perspective, Yonder is too perfect for human design, something Gemma herself notes as she comments that the cloud lack imagination in their form. To a degree, this is a jab at suburbia and the machinations behind its creation. In the era of Pinterest, where anyone can create emotion boards, indoor Bohemian stair decorations, wall signs, and photo arrays unique to their home (just like everyone else), there comes a larger sense of manufacture amidst the veil of individuality. Everything about Yonder is a product of design and is, therefore, empty, lifeless, and tasteless, evidenced by Gemma and Tom’s growing frustration, even as the two are well cared for via disappearing trash removal and re-appearing boxes of supplies. Everything they could want is before them, yet it’s only a facsimile of reality and, therefore, a horror. They possess no control, no autonomy, beyond being able to move freely about Yonder. They are in a literal prison with no walls, trapped due to the allure of manufactured bliss via suburbia. Think of how society often reacts to those in their various stages of growth: born, school to learn, graduate, school to learn some more, couple, marry, buy a home, procreate, and die. It’s a lifecycle humanity undergoes, with variations allowed for changing times, and is rarely treated as anything other than a part of life. But who decided that this is what life is? Who decided that you must couple? That you must buy a certain type of home or have a specific type of job? Who told us we had to do things a specific way and why do we impose these same restrictions upon the next generation. These are the questions Vivarium asks to varying degrees of success, and they are questions worth pondering.
While the social commentary is strong, the larger ideas get a little shakier as answers are offered. It’s not that the film isn’t conclusive (it very much is), it’s that the answers presented aren’t deeply satisfying. There’s a foreseeable inevitability to the proceedings, making the whole of Vivarium a touch nihilistic, which is all well and good if the ending resonates. If not for another in a long line of fantastic leading performances from Poots, there’d be little weight at the conclusion. Eisenberg, for his part, does some great subtle work — charming in the good times, terrifying in the bad — maintaining a performance that’s never about grandeur. Enormous kuddos to cinematographer MacGregor (Future Sex), production designer Philip Murphy (Into the Badlands), and art direction Robert Barrett (Into the Badlands) for making something so mundane frequently disquieting. In the end, Vivarium gets under the skin for the wrong reasons. Rather than pushing its audience to consider their place in the consumerist machine, it’s more likely to put them off parenting or, at the least, commiserate with their partner about the offspring they have, which is a shame, because the questions are worth meditating upon.
Available on VOD and digital March 27th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.