The set-up for the science-fiction thriller Vivarium seems ripe for allegory. A young couple, trapped in an endless suburbia are forced to care for a child, fall into monotonous routines. Director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley hint at a few different deeper meanings — maybe Vivarium is a dig at suburban life, or maybe it’s about how to make marriage work, or about parenthood, or even just finding joy in life when joy seems impossible. Ultimately, the answer is none of the above.
As the film opens, school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and handyman Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) discuss the possibility of buying a home together. Despite their real estate agent (played by Jonathan Aris) being a bit too chipper, they agree to tour a new development called Yonder. They’re quick to decide that the Stepfordian neighborhood isn’t for them, but they find themselves stranded when the agent disappears. Attempts at driving home take them through endless rows of identical houses before returning the pair to the house they were trying to leave.
Things get creepier when a box containing a baby arrives on their doorstep. The child (Senan Jennings) begins to grow at an accelerated rate, screaming when he needs to be fed and spewing imitations of his de facto parents back at them. Gemma and Tom take to their new circumstances differently, as Gemma can’t help her maternal instincts while Tom becomes colder and colder. He throws himself into the task of digging a hole in their yard, a futile attempt at breaking out.
This vision of domesticity is miserable. Home-owning, child rearing, and marriage all seem to be condemned as death traps, and Gemma and Tom fall into the stereotypical roles of nurturing mother and absent father. Is this a condemnation of middle-class life, of the nuclear family as a whole? In the only moment of happiness, Gemma and Tom break into an impromptu dance party, which is quickly interrupted and ended by the appearance of the child.
As things progress, however, it becomes more evident that there’s no deeper level to Vivarium. There’s no bigger commentary on adulthood on Finnegan’s mind; rather, Vivarium is dedicated to its alien scares. There’s something wrong from the moment that Gemma and Tom discover that the development seems to go on forever, and the boy spends his evenings watching black and white patterns on TV. At heart, Vivarium is a puzzle, a story full of twists and thin on character development.
To the film’s credit, the alien-ness is effective, lending Vivarium the tenseness of a horror movie and engaging the audience where the story fails. The house is unnervingly sterile — all the art hanging on the walls is of the house — and the boy speaks in an amalgam of his caretakers’ voices, punctuated by endless screams and barking. His face is just a little too shiny, his hair a little too precisely combed, and he’s constantly around. Gemma and Tom are never left alone. As he grows up, he’s only more terrifying, any sheen of childhood innocence utterly disappearing.
Poots manages to bring some depth to Gemma as she grows sympathetic to the boy and tries to make the best out of the situation. Eisenberg, given less to work with as Tom grows increasingly distant (and physically violent) and thereby more out of the picture, feels miscast as a semi-tough guy. The bond between the two of them also feels thin, as we’re given precious little time to get to know them before they’re thrust into Yonder, and everything that follows is more interesting in the creepy shenanigans occurring in the development than in how these two people are getting along.
But Vivarium advertises what it actually is in its opening moments, as close-ups of a cuckoo taking over a nest serve as a miniature version of what is to follow (“That’s nature, that’s just the way things are,” Gemma says, when a child asks what’s happened to the dead baby birds scattered around the nest). That it doesn’t diverge too much from that set-up in order to make up a larger point isn’t necessarily a fault, especially as the scares and creepiness are carried off well, but it certainly is a disappointment. The surface chills don’t stick that well without a deeper story.
Vivarium is available on VOD and Digital HD now.