How many times have you been asked about your life plan? When are you going to settle down? Buy a house? Have children? Have you, when faced with these questions, felt bitter resentment bubbling up inside? Lorcan Finnegan’s surreal and nightmarish sophomore feature Vivarium may be the movie for you.
Vivarium stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg (seen together recently in The Art Of Self-Defense) as Gemma and Tom, a young couple looking to purchase a new home and start a life together. Visiting a strangely austere showroom, they're met by a similarly strange real estate agent who suggests - insists, really - that they move into a new development outside town that’s just perfect for them. But when they arrive, and the agent disappears, they find a nightmarishly beige landscape of nightmarishly beige houses from which escape is impossible. They didn't buy a house, but they have a house now, and in that house shall they remain forever. All roads lead back to their perfectly-prefab new abode; as far as the eye can see, there is only this subdivision. Feel familiar, suburbanites?
As Gemma and Tom settle, begrudgingly, into their new home, their daily routine mirrors and departs from reality in increasingly unsettling ways. Supplies are provided in boxes that appear outside their houses. The television plays only fractal noise. Nothing smells, feels, or tastes normal; it’s a permanent version of that surreal sensory discombobulation of having just moved into a new home. As the audience surrogate character, Poots offers weary relatability in the face of a distressing, all-too-familiar situation. As her increasingly distant husband, Eisenberg is at once relatable and monstrous, spending his days obsessively and fruitlessly searching for a way out.
Most distressing of all is the arrival of a box containing a baby, accompanied by a label instructing Gemma and Tom to “raise it and be released.” This baby grows at an alarming rate into a childlike creature that's clearly malevolent in some way. Voiced through a profoundly disconcerting vocal performance mixing multiple child and adult actors’ voices together, this kid is as terrifying in the film as the very idea of parenthood is to many audiences. He’s a nightmare, acting out in increasingly bizarre ways with motivations unintelligible to his “parents,” betraying the fact that he may well be a creation of an unseen, inhuman force; a strong entry into the pantheon of horrible movie kids.
Helping all this along is some terrific production design and visual effects, working in tandem to create a suburbia occupying a nexus between Edward Scissorhands, The Twilight Zone, and the work of David Lynch. Identical astroturfed properties stretch along psychologically-tested curvilinear street patterns ad infinitum; interiors are a perfectly inoffensive shade of off-white; the clouds are picturesque to the point of malevolence. Even the slightly unreal stagebound lighting helps to make everything feel a little too perfect.
Towards the end of Vivarium, the story lurches fully into psychotronic madness, as the neighbourhood’s inner workings start to become more visible - and more dangerous. This sequence sees several “holy shit” moments play out, with space and physics bending to suit the will of the suburb, but while it puts the characters through the wringer, it never quite hits the stratospheric highs one senses it’s aiming for. That’s a budgetary issue, in all likelihood, and while Finnegan finds clever ways around it (think Cube), the hints of the larger film this might have been are still there - if you look for them.
Vivarium’s outlook on society is a bleak one, for the most part. It depicts the world as a banal machine that eats people up, an endless cycle wherein our only purpose is to consume, keep to ourselves, and pump out a new generation to do the same. Contemporary, then, in a time when many find themselves questioning whether humanity’s continued existence is a good thing - or if it even matters. But there’s an infinitesimally tiny glimmer of hope, too: the little moments in which Gemma and Tom throw caution and responsibility to the wind are among the film’s most thrilling.
The term “vivarium” refers to a contained space for beings to live in - a space controlled enough to facilitate external observation, but that presents a satisfying-enough simulacrum of the natural environment that the subjects don’t feel too out of place. It could be applied to the film’s subdivision, and to its individual houses, but the takeaway from Vivarium is that we’re all living in vivaria, under constant perceived observation, never allowed to fully let our guard down.
In that sense, Vivarium is compelling, depressing, apocalyptic even - and strangely invigorating. When all you have is responsibility and grind, tearing your world apart becomes all the more satisfying. Vivarium is a powerfully focused dystopian nightmare that will connect with many viewers in ways they maybe don’t fully desire. But maybe our world needs to be torn apart in order to be mended.