Film Review – Vivarium
Vivarium (2020) starts off with a fantastic opening act. Schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and handy man Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple looking to settle down in a new home. They meet up with a real estate agent (Jonathan Aris) who leads them to a brand-new community called “Yonder.” With its clean streets, uniform architecture, and freshly cut lawns, Yonder has that idyllic look resembling something out of a 1950s home magazine. But that may very well be the reason Gemma and Tom suspect something going on underneath the glossy façade.
Almost immediately, Gemma and Tom sense something wrong within this community. There are no other residents in sight. Each house is structured the exact same way and painted with the same shade of light green both on the outside and inside. Even the clouds above them are identical to each other. Worry starts to creep in when the agent suddenly disappears, leaving Gemma and Tom on their own. Things go from bad to worse when they try to drive out of the complex only to get lost in the maze-like streets, circling back to the same “Number 9” house they looked at when they first got there. Worry turns to terror when Tom climbs onto the roof of the house only to see the neighborhood stretch out into the horizon.
This beginning section has all of the creepy atmosphere one could find in an episode of The Twilight Zone or in a Stephen King novel. Director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley structure the first act with increasing claustrophobia. No matter what Gemma and Tom do, escape seems futile. Their phones don’t work and the gas in their car eventually runs out from driving around so much. Trying to leave by foot only has them coming right back to house number 9. Even more mysterious is the magical appearance of cardboard boxes filled with food and supplies. Someone (or something) intends for them to stay there. They get even more tied down when – and this isn’t a spoiler – a baby shows up on their doorstep.
I really enjoyed Vivarium…for about the first thirty minutes. For all the potential we get in the beginning, the narrative takes a drastic downturn as we enter the second and third acts. This may have to do with how apparent the central metaphors are – domesticity is a trap, suburbia is a culture of conformity, parenthood is an endless slog, etc. The writing and directing leaves no nuance in expressing these ideas. As Gemma and Tom go on living in this prison, the more closed off they become with one another. The boy they take in (Senan Jennings/Eanna Hardwicke) acts like a clone from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), talking in either half cryptic sentences or mimicking Gemma and Tom’s verbal fights. When they don’t play their roles as parents, the boy lets out an ear-piercing scream.
There’s nothing wrong with saying that this type of life can be suffocating, but the problem is that the production seems to be saying only this and nothing else. This is a cynical, bleak story that offers no light at the end of the tunnel. Even the bits of magical realism – the neverending neighborhood, food showing up at the door – feels empty because of how straight forward the central message is. What’s so wrong with having a secure and safe place to live? What is the motivation for Gemma and Tom to even consider living in Yonder? The direction and writing don’t construct the community like a place one would be tempted to stay, but a living hell that Gemma and Tom get ensnared within.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are both good actors, but they have little chemistry with each other. Their characters don’t feel like a loving couple but cogs assigned to play their specific roles (maybe that’s the point?). Tom is set on escape, treating the boy as an alien being (he refers to him as “It”). His desire to break out causes him to dig a massive hole in the front lawn, exuding endless physical exertion like a modern Sisyphus. Gemma adapts the maternal/teacher role, treating the boy like her own. She tries to conform as a means of solving the riddle, even saying to the boy “I’m going to figure you out.” The further into the plot they go, the further apart Gemma and Tom become. Instead of working the problem out together as a team, they grow increasingly independent of one another.
I don’t mind movies taking bizarre, surreal approaches. I don’t mind movies having a specific theme to revolve around. But the problem with Vivarium is that it leaves no room for interpretation. It harps on the emptiness of suburban life but keeps everything on a surface level itself. Why should we care about what this is trying to say? Why should the message matter to us? This is the equivalent of someone pointing out the problems of the world but offering no solutions – they are simply screaming out into the void.