A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinthine neighbourhood of identical houses.
Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are an unmarried American gardener and a British school teacher, looking to move into their first home together. They wander into a real-estate office to be greeted a creepy agent called Martin (Jonathan Aris, doing a fantastic Crispin Glover impersonation), who shows them a home in a prefab suburb known as Yonder. The neighbourhood is one identical mint-green house after another, each with a matching garden and street lamp. It doesn’t long for the couple to decide this isn’t the place for them…
But Martin disappears, leaving the pair stranded in a Lynchian hell, and when they try to drive out… they discover there’s no escape. They simply drive around in circles seeing the same perfectly-shaped clouds and cloned houses. And wherever they go, no matter which turning they take, they always end up back outside house number 9…
Then, a box arrives filled with vacuum-packed food… and then another box arrives which holds a baby boy with the message ‘raise the child and be released’ inside. With no further explanation, Tom and Gemma are trapped with a baby that grows into a creepy child who talks with the voice of an adult. A boy who’s glued to a TV broadcast of black-and-white patterns whenever he’s not mimicking the adults or screeching for cornflakes. Later, the boy has matured into an even creepier man, who smiles eerily at his mother and appears out of nowhere.
Played by newcomers Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke at different ages, The Boy is an amalgamation of every creepy horror movie kid; part Damien from The Omen (1976), part Ester from The Orphan (2009), with a bit of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (2000). They’re genderless, devoid of emotion, with deeply pitched voices. No matter your personal opinions on children, you’ll truly hate this nameless boy in his sharply-pressed white shirt.
Vivarium offers no explanation for its mysterious setup. Like Black Mirror, this world exists without rhyme or reason. Tom starts to dig a hole to nowhere in the front yard, as Gemma attempts to tap into her maternal instincts. The universe of Vivarium feels presciently eerie given the isolation most of the world is engaging in right now with Coronavirus lockdowns.
Jesse Eisenberg plays another variation of his moody, sarcastic, totally-not-Mark-Zuckerberg persona. But his character isn’t too interesting because this isn’t really his film. Imogen Poots’ Gemma is the real lead, playing a nurturing teacher who suddenly becomes an adoptive mother to a monster.
The film looks amazing, set in a Blue Velvet (1986) styled world where everything’s too manicured and uncanny. Cinematographer MacGregor and production designer Philip Murphy (Into the Badlands) have designed a sickening candy-coloured Monopoly board from hell. Ironically, it’s the brightness of this place that makes Vivarium so bleak.
Vivarium could be compared to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was tasked with doing the same thing over and over again. Tom and Gemma are likewise stuck in a never-ending battle that can’t be won. Insanity is, after all, doing the same thing time and again and expecting a different result.
There are no scares and little gore, but Vivarium manages to squeeze enough anxiety-inducing paranoia and the claustrophobia into its 97-minutes. The metaphors for the dehumanising of suburban couples aren’t subtle and you don’t need a critical theory degree to see the heavy-handed message about adulthood. It’s dark and unnerving but funny in the kind of way that makes one feel bad for laughing.
Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley (Without Name), the director and writer of Vivarium, deliver slick sci-fi thriller despite not having too many tricks up their sleeves. There’s a good reason why high-concept sci-fi works better in short form. With no real character development or twists, the interesting premise starts to sputter as the story runs out of juice in the middle… but the atmosphere managed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
It never dips into horror clichés but uses dark humour and an ambiguous script to keep audiences watching. It could’ve explored its themes further, rather than scratch the surface of domestic anxieties. An intelligent script, stylish direction, and well-pitched performances should turn Vivarium into a cult classic. Like some of the best The Twilight Zone stories, Vivarium should leave you unsettled and a little anxious.
director: Lorcan Finnegan.
writer: Garret Shanley (story by Garret Shanley & Lorcan Finnegan).
starring: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris & Danielle Ryan.