A film review by Craig J. Koban April 5, 2020

VIVARIUM jjj

2020, R, 97 mins.

 

Imogen Poots as Gemma  /  Jesse Eisenberg as Tom  /  Eanna Hardwicke as The Boy  /  Jonathan Aris as Martin

Lorcan Finnegan  /  Written by Garret Shanley

 

 

 

 

VIVARIUM is a new slow burn science fiction thriller that's made on the cheap, but nevertheless becomes more genuinely unnerving as it unfolds throughout its relatively taunt 97 minutes.  It dabbles in a premise that's seen the light of day, in one form or another, in many previous films (an unsuspecting couple living in an absolute hellish suburban nightmare), but VIVARIUM takes it several macabre steps forward in its narrative evolution.  As a bravura exercise in chronicling utter confusion and debilitating paranoia, this Lorcan Finnegan directed affair is a bona fide hair raiser that will most definitely challenge viewers.  Plus, it also emerges as something surprisingly and profoundly timely in the way its story delves into the dark psychological impact that isolation has on people.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots are effectively paired here as a married couple, Tom and Gemma, who are trying to test the waters of home ownership.  Needing to quench their curiosity, the couple makes a trip to the nearby Prospect Properties, which, in turn, represents a new and mostly mysterious corporation named Yonder Development.  Their meeting with the creepily strange, by polite mannered real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), is as socially awkward as it gets, but Tom and Gemma seem game to look at just about anything within their tight budgets.  Martin insists that the latest Yonder development would be absolute ideal for their needs, and then proceeds to drive them to the area, which is comprised of street after street of the same modular green houses that seem to impossibly go on forever.  The identical neighborhoods are also completely void of any people at all.  Basically, the unfathomably large housing development just goes on for miles and miles with no end or no citizens in sight.  

Hmmmmm...

Still, Tom and Gemma seem pleased with what they see as a potential and easy buy, especially after viewing property number nine.  Just when the open house seems to be going well, Martin abruptly vanishes, leaving Tom and Gemma feeling deeply unsettled, leading to them getting into their car and attempting to drive out of the area.  There's one large problem, though: They seem to keep going in crazy circles and arriving back at house #9, despite taking multiple alternate routes to flee the development.  Every single street, it seems, always takes them back to the same house.  To make matters worse, their car runs out of gas and leaves them completely stranded.  Tom and Gemma decide to make the most out of their dire situation and just stay put in the house for the night. 

 

 

The next morning Tom climbs onto the roof and surveys his surroundings, leading to a terrifying discovery that all of the houses of Yonder just go on into infinity, as far as the eye can see.  Even when the pair decide to follow a very fake looking sun in the sky for natural navigation out on foot, they pathetically still arrive back at the same house.  Upon their return they discover a large box of what appears to be delivered goods, including food and necessities.  With the daunting realization that they might be stuck indefinitely, Tom and Gemma try to acclimate as best as they can, but their shared mental states begin to unravel with every passing day of being completely isolated and alone.  Things take a sharp and shocking detour when another box ends up on their doorstep, and when they open it they find an unclothed baby with tagged instructions: "Raise the child and be released."  They begrudgingly accept the orders, but soon discover that this is no ordinary human baby, mostly because it grows and matures at a superhuman level and speed.  Then the baby turned child overnight begins to display horrifyingly patience testing behavior that's borderline alien to the couple, leaving their grasp on reality and sanity slipping.

Hmmmmm...pagin' Rod Serling. 

It's scary enough to be trapped at an unknown location of unexplainable origin and completely away from the rest of humanity, but it's a whole other type of nightmare trying to deal with this otherworldly child that (in random order) barks incessantly like a dog, screams at the top of his lungs without warning or no willingness to stop, and then regurgitates Tom and Gemma's conversations in precise detail back to them.  Gemma seems to take a bit more caution in "raising" this boy, whereas Tom has that fanatical look on his face that he yearns to put this ungodly creature six feet under as soon as possible.  Ultimately, it's at this vantage point in the plot where the film's underlining themes of unprepared couples being thrust into unwanted parental responsibilities and how that crushing dilemma - on top of the suffocating boredom and sense of divide between them and the rest of the world - starts to really have their way with poor Tom and Gemma.  The more this monstrous lad taxes their nerves daily, the more this new mother/father tandem starts to clue out from not only their surroundings and predicament, but from their own relationship as well.  VIVARIUM most certainly has a lot on its mind about the true nature of domestic and family bliss, unwanted children being thrown into the mix, the negative effects of suburbanization closing in on people, and the nature of what it truly means to carve out a happy and productive family dynamic amidst absolute uncontrollable chaos.  The arc of Gemma's link to her new "son" is a fascinating one, as it traverses from interest, to small levels of maternal care, and then unavoidably toward anger, frustration, and distrust.   

I think that VIVARIUM is also, as previously mentioned, that much more panic inducing of a watch considering our current Covid-19 riddled world, which has essentially forced large chucks of our own civilization to physically compartmentalize, stay home and away from people in general.  That's what good sci-fi films should do: offer commentary on contemporary woes and concerns through the lens of the fantastical and/or horrifying.  Finnegan seems equal to the task of not letting his film devolve into cookie cutter survival horror troupes and instead tries to drum up scene after scene of existentialist dread.  It's a film that taps into universal fears of feeling trapped without any reasonable way out, with the added psychosis of the dehumanizing aspects of being all alone in a dreadful environment.  It's the legitimate sense of the panic stricken unknown that drives VIVARIUM, which allows for it all to unfold in largely unpredictable beats, even as it rushes headfirst into a climax and ending that's almost too unspeakably bleak to describe.  I usually applaud filmmakers that don't hold audience members' hands and guide them through everything that transpires in a film, going great distances to explain everything.  VIVARIUM deserves huge points for haunting ambiguity in its storytelling, but I'll concede that many watching will be either turned off or annoyed at the lack of explanatory payoff here. 

Still, I appreciated how VIVARIUM places confidence and trust in our attention spans, patience, and, well, levels of endurance to watch everything transpire here (this is not an easy watch).  That, and I liked the minimalist aesthetic trappings of the film, and Finnegan manages to craft a sci-fi parable of intriguing visual interest on what I'm assuming is limited financial resources.  Plus, Eisenberg and Poots (both of whom I haven't talked about nearly as much as I should have here in this review) are  thanklessly solid here playing this broken down and emotionally battered couple that try to maintain levels of hope when none appears in sight (Poots in particular, a solid and underrated actress, really goes though the ringer in the film and gives a admirably all-in performance).  If you're looking for feel-good escapist entertainment while in your own self-isolation, then VIVARIUM might not be the right medicine for you right now.  For the rest out there that are attracted towards intensely crafted and sinisterly plotted science fiction that's thematically rich and compelling, then look no further than this rewarding diamond in the rough. 

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