By definition, a “vivarium” is an enclosed configuration constructed for possessing animals under artificial conditions for examination as pets; similar to an “aquarium” for fish. The pets in Vivarium (2020) are a human couple, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), whose search for a dream house nosedives into a horrifying nightmare after they get confined in an enigmatic, maze-like neighborhood of indistinguishable track houses with identical floor plans. Vivarium is the sophomore feature film by Lorcan Finnegan, an Irish director making his 2nd horror film after his debut, Without Name (2016). This film swings for the fences in an attempt to hit home a profound underlying theme, but falls short on its merits within the realms of a feature film spanning nearly 100 minutes. The principal thesis presented in this film would have proved more effective in a 60-minute episode of The Twilight Zone, not a 1 hour and 40-minute standalone movie.
The very first images of Vivarium consist of extreme close-ups on a baby bird being born inside its nest; its magnified depiction almost makes it appear like it’s a dinosaur. We see the mother bird open her beak wide and the baby bird buries its head inside her mouth – an image representing parasitism, where one organism lives inside another organism in a physical alteration of life. The very next image is of Imogen Poots, the immensely talented actor portraying the character of Gemma – a schoolteacher. Her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives from a hard days of laboring with a ladder attached to the roof of their Volkswagen as they drive to “Prospect Properties”, a real-estate office, in search of their dream home. Once they enter the small office, which appears to be in some sort of shopping center, Gemma and Tom browse the housing models on display, until they’re eerily interrupted by a bizarre and socially inept real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris), who persuades the couple to follow him in their car toward “Yonder” – a suburban community of homes that’s “not too far, and close enough.”
Tom and Gemma follow Martin into the estate and they parallel park their vehicles in front of house #9. Martin creepily gives them a tour of the interior, and when he shows them the backyard, he suddenly disappears. When Tom and Gemma walk outside to the street, they notice Martin’s car is gone. Tom and Gemma grow suspicious and decide to leave the community. As Gemma drives, they both keep seeing house #9, as if amid a labyrinth-like loop; they do this until their gas tank goes empty. When Tom uses his ladder to go on the roof of the house, he sees track houses lined up for dozens of miles in the far distance. On foot, they decide to “follow the sun” and hop fences until dusk, until they find a house with its lights on – only to realize it’s #9 again. When a mysterious box filled with cleaning supplies and preserved food appears randomly on the street, Tom cleverly burns down the house to “send a smoke signal”. They wake up in the morning and #9 is rebuilt – brand new. When a second cardboard box appears randomly on the street, Gemma opens it to find a live infant baby boy, with a message on the box that reads, “Raise the child and you will be released” – which is the cryptic message screenwriters Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley are attempting to send to the audience.
Lorcan Finnegan uses far too many extreme close-ups throughout the entire film; it almost causes the viewer to ask for a break. There should be a valid reason why a character’s face is presented to the audience so closely on-screen; to convey an emotion or communication as opposed to merely talking or driving a car. Finnegan employs innovative ideas that are finely crafted as a whole, with bizarre angles at high-altitudes and 360-degree points-of-view from overhead, looking down at Tom and Gemma driving around in circles. Moreover, Vivarium attempts to embark upon a feat that’s too ambitious in its scope. The social commentary supersedes any attempt at inventive filmmaking; a child in a cardboard box calls attention to child abduction and trafficking. The message that reads “raise the child and you will be released” poses the question: released to where? This question is clearly answered upon the film’s ending, but falls short in its reward. The filmmakers of Vivarium spend almost 90-minutes building up a great mystery, setting themselves up for great failure if the coming payoff in the film’s climax doesn’t satisfy audiences with a sufficient reward for tuning in to their feature-length film. That’s why this film would have been great for a 1-hour episode; one can’t help but think of Vivarium as a segment on The Twilight Zone. The underlying themes and social commentary of parasitism, domesticity, unplanned parenthood, or a false desire for parenthood, result in insubstantial thematic payoffs that aren’t worth the film’s length.
Imogen Poots’ performance is 100% – all in. Jesse Eisenberg is genuinely onboard as well – it’s because of their authentic portrayals that we’re able to become fully immersed in the mystery. But the build-up of mystery doesn’t match the reward it obligates itself to deliver. Parasitism, domesticity, unplanned parenthood, or a false desire for parenthood, are the theories and opinions being delivered in this film, disguised within the genre of horror and fantasy. The lack of proper answers for the film’s enigmas upon the climax would display the inevitable ineptitude of anyone attempting to make sense of the great mysteries created. The film is a fantasy in the sense of its implausibilities, and the concept of domesticity draining the life out of a couple is based on a false assumption. The premise for parenthood being deemed as a draining life-force is erroneous. And the repetitive cycle of parenthood and death presented in Vivarium is short-sighted; is there not more to an individual’s life than raising children?
There’s a deeper metaphor that Vivarium attempts to convey – but its message doesn’t have enough merit, failing to intrigue the mind after 100 minutes of mystery. The opinions expressed would have been perfect for an episode or short film. This film tries to convey the message of a false desire for parenthood and the consequences of raising children; does a human being’s duty on earth expire after their children have been raised? It would behoove one to think otherwise. That’s the world Vivarium resides in; the question it proposes; there are no politics, no wars, no media, no authorities; just couples trapped in purgatories to be taught lessons in parenthood. The film tries to warn aspiring parents and couples alike to essentially “be careful what you wish for” because the consequences could be disastrous and once you move into a suburban home and live the family lifestyle, the end of the rope is near and your fate is going to come to a closed curtain.
Vivarium conveys an insubstantial perception of domesticity while attempting to be profound with a theme that could have easily been conveyed on episodic television – not a feature film.
Grade: 65% | D | 1 ½ Star | Satisfactory