Written by Garret Shanely
Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
The concept behind Vivarium is deeply intriguing. A young couple (Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg), just beginning their lives together, steps into a realty office just for a laugh. They are met by a strange realtor who is extremely aggressive in an alien polite way to get them to leave the office and visit Yonder, a picture-perfect suburb. His pitch for the house is peppered with questions about the couple’s current status and as time passes he loses the warmth once presented. Then the realtor is gone and the couple finds themselves unable to find the exit to return to their lives. They become trapped in Yonder. One morning a box appears outside the house. Inside is a baby and a message “Raise the child and be released”.
The problem with this film is that none of the juicy, intriguing ideas presented is explored or even allowed the time to breathe. Just from a surface level, this reminded me of some of the great science fiction short stories & novellas I’ve read. But even those movies get more inside the head of their protagonists and have something to say about the ideas they put forward. There is a problematic coldness and distance presented in the movie, that doesn’t come across as an aesthetic choice but as a lack of clear character development. We are supposed to find the child bizarre and inhuman but our human protagonists don’t really follow behaviors we understand either.
Gemma, the girlfriend, shows moments of warmth towards the strange child and even creates a chasm with Tom, the boyfriend over the creature. Yet, not too much later, she suddenly recoils from the being in revulsion. The movie never spends enough time exploring her developing motherly relationship with the child for any of these moments to carry emotional weight. The conceit is that this species does this to human couples as part of its life cycle, so why hasn’t it developed a way to normalize its behaviors and deceptively appeal to our emotions? That would have been a fantastic character beat and a plot point that could be flipped on its head when the child, having aged to maturity, suddenly drops the facade of warmth and becomes cold & manipulative.
There’s a stretch of the movie where Gemma and Tom are on the same page about working against this creature and then a few minutes later they are divided for reasons that seem arbitrary. It’s also unclear what the metaphors going on in this story are. Is this supposed to be about marriage and suburbia as a prison? Is the movie about the horrors of raising a child, how they can become ungrateful with age? Is the movie purporting to be about the artifice of capitalist life with its bland fake food and perfectly constructed simulation? Once again, there’s never enough time spent exploring a single idea so the film ultimately just feels like a mish-mash of potentially fascinating ideas and with a nihilistic veneer over it all.
I had high hopes for Vivarium after seeing the trailer a couple of months ago. What I discovered was the concepts on display in the trailer are about all the movie has going for it. That said, the visuals are very well done and the production design team creates a world just itching to be explored and developed. It’s sad that the script doesn’t do justice to these elements. The movie ends up being almost as hollow and artificial as the neighborhood our characters are trapped within.