Considering the self-quarantine many people are forced into these days it’s interesting how so many movies coming out lately seem to have an appropriate theme relating to isolation. Weird. Anyways, one such film is a new science fiction thriller called “Vivarium”, the sophomore film by director Lorcan Finnegan and the third on-screen pairing of stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. Currently available via streaming services, “Vivarium’s” name means “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study” which is pretty much the exact situation that Poots and Eisenberg find themselves in after traveling to a seemingly normal housing village called Yonder only to find themselves trapped there raising a child of unknown origin. The plot is just as strange as it sounds mixing sci-fi with a small bit of horror as the two lovebirds try to find their way out of their predicament. It’s unique and odd and all kinds of strange. Let’s dive a little deeper into this unnerving thriller and see if what lies beneath the surface lives up to its weirdness. This is my review of “Vivarium”.
I’m far from the first critic to say this, but “Vivarium’s” odd premise plays out like something out of the Twilight Zone as the main couple Gemma and Tom, played by Poots and Eisenburg, find themselves trapped in a suburban setting where with their fate out of their control. All they know is their food comes to them from an unknown source, any attempt to leave circles back around to their assigned house, and they’ve been charged to raise a child that isn’t theirs. As the story progresses and the days go by their relationship and mental states are challenges by the child and their isolation as well as the monotony of their daily lives as they wait for freedom. The entire concept is based on a story written by Director Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley and is a thinly veiled examination of the monotony and dissatisfaction of suburban life as well as the anxiety of having and raising a child. In a lot of ways its metaphors or rather heavy handed but it’s that lack of subtlety that actually made me enjoy this picture.
“Vivarium” dares to challenge what most would define as the goals of life: to establish a relationship, build a home and build a family. However, these realities are presented as horrific and mundane where Gemma and Tom have unwittingly surrendered their individuality and happiness to simplicity and repetition. Their only purpose seems to be to procreate and the child they’re creating isn’t even theirs, meaning the effort they’re putting into the child will also lead them to a literal and figurative dead end in their lives. It’s a pretty dark and depressing look at existence when you think about it supported by a pair of powerhouse performances from Eisenberg and Poots the latter of which serves up possibly one of the most engaging and layered performances of her career as the mother figure in this equation. While Eisenberg’s Tom undergoes the common male identity crisis of seeking purpose and an escape from the mundane Poots as Gemma shifts between multiple emotional states from supportive lover to loving mother rarely finding the right balance between the two, a reflection on the complicated juggling act women really undergo when a baby comes into the picture. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke who each play the child at different ages and do well to make him satisfyingly creeping and otherworldly, but still somehow very human in a dry sort of way.
Where “Vivarium” goes wrong for me is in its pacing and story structure. While the atmosphere and strange narrative are supported by gorgeously designed visuals and set pieces as well as the aforementioned performances, the presentation of all these elements combined feels flawed. Too often it feels like the film isn’t going anywhere fast and while there’s always something worth appreciating in every moment I found myself a few too many times asking the movie to get to the point. For me it’s not the pretentiousness or the lack of subtlety that makes this movie flawed, it’s the inability to successfully stretch its themes and ideas properly into its run time. It feels like its somewhere between a rush-job and a slow burn giving some time for things to develop but never enough time for anything to breath properly before it moves on to the next moment or idea. This also effects the main relationship between Tom and Gemma. While we know Eisenberg and Poots have great chemistry from their past films it’s not as apparent here because we get more time dedicated to their individual character struggles and not enough time to fully flesh out what makes these two people work together in a relationship so the deterioration of their union feels empty even if their own personal conflicts pay off.
Thankfully while this film is an example of how the whole isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts, the individual elements that do stand out are more than enough to make “Vivarium” an engaging viewing experience. It’s an intriguing sci-fi picture to say the least that keeps you on edge and genuinely disturbed by the scenario which has it roots in real life anxieties. The terror here lies in revealing what’s hidden beneath the lies of what many would normally define as the perfect scenario for family life making this a harsh, otherworldly reminder that coexisting, finding purpose and becoming a parent can all be terrifying prospects to have to face all at once. It’s not perfect and could have benefited from better pacing and a more patient approach, but for what we’re given “Vivarium” is effective and accomplishes its missions of causing us to question what it all means while dreading the honest answers we’re given as the credits roll.