The utterly creepy, one note on purpose Vivarium could not better timed for the desperation of our socially distanced situation.
The set up for this sci-fi thriller is fast. Vivarium doesn’t waste any time on character development or excessive backstory. None of those things are important as this couple could be anyone. Teacher Gemma(Imogen Poots) and boyfriend handyman Tom(Jesse Eisenberg) are looking to find a house and start their lives together. They stumble into a storefront for Yonder a seemingly idyllic suburban community where Martin an endlessly chipper and stilted salesman convinces them to make a house call.
Quickly upon arrival, they realize the community is not for them but find themselves unable to leave. All attempts result in the return to their house numbered 9. Running, burning, giant messages all mysteriously fail. A box with vacuum-sealed provisions and then more ominously an infant that grows at an accelerated rate appears in the street in front of their house. It feels like a malignant and emotionally devoid sociopath wants to conduct an experiment. As time marches on Tom and Gemma fall into predictable patterns. Monotony will literally kill you.
Vivarium is a bizarre trip through a nightmarish normal. Everything from the performances, especially by an exhaustive Poots, to the cinematography by MacGregor is designed to put the viewer in the same suburban Innerspace as Tom and Gemma. Shot frame within a frame with forced symmetry it is reminiscent of the sublime technicolor horror/comedy Greener Grass. Every set feels as artificially wrong as the situation Tom and Gemma find themselves in. The film written by Garret Shanley and Lorcan Finnegan who also directed has a ton to say about gender roles and the complacency of suburban life. Most of that messaging is through one increasingly claustrophobic vignette after the next. It is subversive with a capital S. Vivarium is a surprising sharp dissection of the horror of tedium.
This is a view of middle-aged life that is not pretty. The drudgery of parenthood and marriage is taken to their farthest conclusion and it isn’t comfortable. Clearly Shanley and Finnegan do not have a positive view on this type of life. If life was as terrible as it appears in Yonder, I would totally agree. For some maybe it is. For Tom and Gemma who are literal prisoners to their forced lives and indulged child, it definitely is. Adulting sucks and Vivarium wants to show you just how bad.
The cast is tiny and relies heavily on the skills of Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Senan Jennings, and Eanne Hardwicke. Each person has a very specific part to play and without each component, the film would collapse in on itself under the weight of the weirdness. There is plenty of said weirdness. Gender and life tropes are blunt objects to be wielded with brute force by the capable cast.
There is no doubt from the first moments that home is not where the heart is. A cuckoo bird invades a Robin’s nest and shoves all the other baby birds out. Cuckoo birds do it with mimicry which comes chillingly into play later and total determination. The alien invasion of nature is unnatural and Vivarium lives and dies in those murky waters. Robin’s eggs are a specific blue which is the same shade as Martin the real estate agent’s car. The track housing all painted the same nauseating green that is just one shade off that distinct blue-green makes your teeth ache. The turfed yards are empty of personal effects and the house only sports paintings of the house itself. It is someone or something’s terrible idea of suburbia.
Tom and Gemma seal their fate when they drink the flavorless champagne and strawberries. Eating or drinking in Hades traps you there and Tom and Gemma find themselves committed to their new lives. Nods to Greek mythology are sprinkled throughout. Persephone ate pomegranate seeds while in Hades and a gardener ratted her out. In punishment, she turned him into an owl which is the air freshener in Gemma’s car. Additionally, the Sisyphean job of digging to freedom Jesse undertakes is as futile as it is soul-sucking. That is the black heart of the story. Traditional, old fashioned men work tirelessly, sometimes to their death. Isolated and impotent they are frustrated and incapable of love. Women are lonely and underappreciated as they care for the children and keep house.
Numerous times during the film Tom attempts to take charge solidifying stereotypical gender roles. He takes over driving Gemma’s car and climbs on the roof of their house. It’s important to note the car is hers not his as he doesn’t own one yet. He throws himself into his digging because that is his job. Tom believes he is only the strong provider. At the same time, Gemma finds herself caring for The Boy and tending to laundry.
Jesse Eisenberg who has built a career playing the smartest guy in the room leaves most of that snarky charm behind him as he struggles with his lot in life. When he yells at Gemma to “let him do this”, his desperation is palpable. The child who has intruded on his life has all the hallmarks of a spoiled brat. Not only has the child usurped his position next to Gemma but he’s a monster. He screams until he gets what he wants and spews exact replicas of previous conversations back at Tom and Gemma like a snake spitting venom. If that wasn’t enough he does it all with a preternaturally mature voice. It is enough to make your skin crawl.
A rare private moment of joy for the couple turns into a breaking point when Tom locks the child in their car and forces Gemma to go inside the house with him. Part of what makes parenthood so difficult is the loss of intimacy that can happen. It is very difficult to carve out time for yourselves as a couple independent from yourselves as parents. The impromptu dance party that turned violent is an example of that difficulty.
Examples of the many phases of motherhood are everywhere. First Gemma falls into the role of protector and nurturer for The Boy and later when the child grows into a young man she chases him through the neighborhood in what most parents will find reminiscent of the desire to hang onto their children as they age. The twist here, of course, being Gemma ends up bashing him over the head and gets one final rebellious moment when she tells him, “I’m not your fucking mother.”
In the end, there are no easy answers. We are hardwired to make sense of the senseless. This is why we see familiar images in the unfamiliar. Pareidolia makes us see animals in clouds and a man on the moon. It also keeps us from seeing danger before it is too late. Yonder is anything but familiar despite its initial presentation.
It’s likely everything is as simple as the name and the Cuckoo birds. Aliens have invaded and are slowly but surely trying to figure out how to assimilate. The ever folding fractal patterns The Boy watches on the television is not a sly commentary on screen time turning kid’s brains to mush but instructions from the mother ship. The book he gives to Gemma certainly lends truth to that.
In addition, the food is tasteless because you can’t replicate what you don’t know. The figurative and literal throatiness of a particularly unnerving scene may be the key to the lifeform’s ability to imitate. Much like flushing goldfish or toads down the toilet or burying pets in the yard, vacuum sealing dead people is a means to an end. Like the brilliant Twilight Zone episode “Stopover In A Quiet Town” perfection is never perfect when there is no context. Life is meaningless without a true understanding of joy.
Despair gives way to despondency. The color-washed underworld Gemma finds herself in when she follows the scuttling injured young man shows all that in excruciating detail. It is unsettling and voyeuristic. There is something very disturbing about watching a woman cry and viewing a child applauding their “parents” having vigorous sex. We don’t know the life cycle of the alien invaders. We do know Martin and his kin are the bait that lures unsuspecting victims. A Venus Flytrap of sorts that entices their prey into a self-made terrarium. If the number on the receipt on Martin’s bodybag is anything to go by, it’s happened at least 8899 times before. The logo for Prospect Properties implies this will go on forever with its Ouroboros imagery.
Infinity is a terrible thing. Vivarium, which means a structure adapted for animal observation is proof of that. We live, we die, with nothing in between but infinite boredom. It’s a sobering thought, especially with no booze but champagne around. A the end of the day, I guess that’s the point. There is no joy in simply existing. Appreciate what you have and quit wasting time wondering what might be waiting yonder.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.