Directed by Lorcan Finnegan.
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings, and Eanna Hardwicke.
A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses.
Can someone please check on Lorcan Finnegan? Vivarium is as subtle as the asteroid’s intentions in Armageddon. “Domestication, what a meaningless curse.” We procreate, raise screeching goo aliens, then die forgotten. Finnegan’s existential concern hasn’t softened since his 2012 short film Foxes, nor have ambitions to explore humanity through absurdist means. There’s an attempt to reunite with Mother Nature’s untamed spirit, and yet, Vivarium leaves such a dispassionate impact despite screaming so loudly into an eternal void. How unfortunate for a movie with cynicism and discontent this thickly layered, watered-down by elaborate ruses that are thematically, detrimentally, one-dimensional.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) represent every maturing couple on the verge of adulthood’s final evolution. Homeownership, parenthood, the works. Out of curiosity, the lovers enter an office for housing development Yonder, where utopian comfort is preached. Agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) excitedly shows them an available unit, then splits while Tom and Gemma aren’t paying attention. Weirdness only intensifies when exit roads keep leading back to the same unit, #9. No neighbors, no escape, just a cardboard package containing…a baby?
In attempting to satirize monotony, Finnegan’s commentary falls into the very doldrums his script intensely fears. Pre-packaged, flavorless meals are delivered in rationed periods. Neverending rows of seafoamish colored starter-homes line streets like cloned cabbage heads in an augmented garden. There’s nothing for Tom to do except focus his mind on digging a hole to nowhere as a distraction, fruitlessly laboring to pass days, weeks, months. Gemma’s role as a maternal figure denotes the same “wasted” objective. Satisfaction stripped, emotional connections severed. Over, and over, and over, until finality.
Tom and Gemma are supernaturally kidnapped, informed that freedom will be granted once their new child is grown. Promised a way out after their duties are fulfilled, much like we all are. Of course, there’s nothing revolutionary about mortality and that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. Audiences watch two humans toil away, trapped within their “perfect” familial purgatory as housebound frustrations drain every last ounce of vitality from their exhausted, expiring husks. Maybe Finnegan never intended to insert any wake-up moments or urge an antidote to “normalcy” (a cure for wellness, eh), but as presented, Vivarium is an injection of clarified depression. Those on the fence about nurturing sons and daughters ought to seek inspiration elsewhere.
Thus brings us to Tom and Gemma’s mutant, extraterrestrial youth. A cross between Alfalfa and Damien from The Omen, with a curious personality that mimics overheard dialogue. Gemma shows affection, Tom would rather rupture the bastard spawn’s head until deceased. Quite understandably, as “Young Boy” (Senan Jennings) emits the most horrid, piercing scream until either parent figures out what’s needed at that moment (food, companionship, etc). As tiresome days wear onward (aka tiresome scenes), lovers divide and mundanity withers a once collective will to live. Commentary on being forced into someone else’s definition of happiness? Parental anxiety blasted at the loudest decibel? A little bit of both, but again, quite frustrating given there’s no farther reach.
The title “Vivarium” is an immediate tell of the film’s intentions, defined as “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets.” The film, itself, an experiment in predetermined “perfection.” Tom and Gemma the lab rats, which grants us scant development to draw from given how their time outside Yonder’s maze is brief. Gemma, a lower-grade school teacher, shows sorrow when finding deceased baby birds pushed from their nest. Groundskeeper Tom buries the carcasses in a grave where they belong (before belittling death). They share a favorite song, do couple-y things, but neither character exists outside their rigid household roles. So much is meant to be inferred from a few quickie car rides and opinions on aviary habits, that their “journey” hits its metaphorical ceiling somewhere around act one’s conclusion.
Finnegan’s an idealist, working visual poetry into morbid realizations. Anger and insecurity fuel his writing, and yet actors are presented with so few chances to shine. Imogen Poots rises above her co-stars through motherly exasperation, especially given how Jesse Eisenberg’s sleepwalking arc charts his transition from snarky gardener to mute gravedigger. Acceptance plays a drastic role as the film flashes forward about ninety days after the baby is plopped into frame, so we never truly embrace either adult’s mania. Poots’ bleary, tear-filled eyes a breath of fresh air the few times she’s allowed to emotionally lose her ‘effing mind, although Finnegan still finds a way to mute the film’s overall despair. Here are truths. They are scary. Now what?
Vivarium is an abstract dissection of mankind’s obsessions with family-style entrapment, belabored by uninspired overtness. Tom digs his own grave as a profession (capitalism’s “work until you die” ugliness), while Gemma blindly devotes her entire self-worth to the son she never wanted. I reminisce fondly on Lorcan Finnegan’s Foxes, which I adore, and how it utilizes the same message by showing we’re all wild animals at heart. Vivarium, conversely, is bleak to a fault. Served as a flavorless brand of sci-fi gruel that, in its homogeneous conformity, *is* the message. As stated above, this film is certainly an experiment. One that never calibrates intentions, and fails to question the parameters of deserving legacies in a world where individual will is just an illusion.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd (@DoNatoBomb).