Vivarium was directed by Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name), written by Garret Shanley (Without Name), and stars Imogen Poots (Fright Night, Green Room), Jesse Eisenberg (Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Zombieland), Senan Jennings (wolf), Jonathan Aris (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Zone 414), and Eanna Hardwicke (Fate: The Winx Saga). It follows a couple as they look for a perfect home, only to find themselves trapped in a seemingly unending series of identical houses.
The Plot: Vivarium’s plotting is mainly a metaphor but has some serious high points. Tom (Eisenberg) and Gemma (Poots) are looking to buy a house. The couple meets Martin (Aris), a realtor who seems a bit off. He takes them to Yonder, a quiet series of identical homes that are reportedly very popular. As they tour house #9, Martin leaves and the couple decides to leave Yonder; although they find out that they cannot, all roads lead to house #9 and their car runs out of gas.
They burn down #9, and they get a baby in the mail with a message telling them to raise it in order to leave. After a few months, the baby (Jennings) has grown exponentially. As the boy grows, Tom and Gemma become distant. After the boy disappears and later reappears with a book containing a revelation. The couple reunites and makes a last-ditch effort to escape Yonder.
The Characters: Characters are thin, but have some good aspects. Tom is some kind of construction worker with knowledge of nature, which does surprisingly come into play in the story; his presumable previous job gives him a purpose in the new, otherworldly neighbourhood. Gemma is a teacher, with probable aspirations to settle down with Tom. If the couple were given a bit more time to develop, and the time spent in Yonder was shortened by 5 to 7 minutes, the movie would be a lot better for it.
Martin is an effectively unnerving segue into the bizarro suburban environment, and the Boy is good in his own surreal, sociopathic way. Performances help to save the movie from itself, Eisenberg and Poots show good chemistry in the first few minutes, which visibly deteriorates as they spend more time in Yonder. The usually energetic Eisenberg becomes dead-eyed, and Poots goes from happy and delightful to anxious and alone. It’s very good work from both of them.
The Message: Vivarium’s message is sent with deadpan, often black delivery, and satirical horror. The whole “suburban life will suck you dry” bent is familiar, having been done in movies like the ‘Burbs and the Jones. Still, the movie does provide some solid moments of both comedy and horror. A fantastic scene involving the couple, the Boy, and their car is scary, yet has humour running through it. And another when Gemma and the Boy play pretend; the scare is foreshadowed, but what happens is so bizarre that it retains its effect.
While the message is clear and has its high points, Vivarium does overstay its welcome; having to watch Tom and Gemma as they go through a routine for so long gets monotonous. Surely the point, but said point has already been made. It also seems condescending coming from Hollywood, the home of many stars, multimillionaires, and corporations trying to tell a large portion of its audiences that their living conditions suck.
The Technics: Technically, Vivarium is very good. It is a good tutorial on how to make a movie that has very few locations feel like it has even less and to great effect. Set design is pristine, glossy, and lifeless, keeping with the theme. Lighting is a strong point of the movie, the setting sun and dark nights look beautiful with the golden yellows and oranges and deep blues and black contrasting with the drab greens and greys of Yonder.
There are major pacing issues though. The second act feels too long, going through the same motions the movie went through one day on repeat, if there was a bit more variance this could have been resolved, as well as offering a brief reprieve from the single joke/scare the movie has going for it.
While the message is clear and has several high points, Vivarium suffers from its single purpose. A fantastic start, some genuinely effective moments, and solid performances keep the movie interesting for a while; but it can feel mean-spirited and condescending. Nonetheless, a majority of the movie is involving, creepy, and funny.