Vivarium follows young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), who are looking for their first ‘proper’ home together. Visiting an estate agent, they’re whisked away by Jonathan Aris’ excellently freaky salesman to check out ‘Yonder’, a housing development with seemingly perfect homes, which is supposedly what they need to kickstart their life together. But Tom and Gemma both have reservations about the eerie place and try to leave, but Martin mysteriously, suddenly disappears and then… they cannot escape after it turns into an endless loop of roads.
Upon realising they can’t get out, and the petrol runs out in their car just as the night draws in, they take shelter in the house they’ve seen. However, this is the point that everything good and balanced in their lives begins to unravel and something unusual is afoot. The next morning, they try to escape again but still cannot and to add further oddness, a baby boy is delivered in a box to them – with a message to help him grow up. This then helps to advance their descent into a further loop of strangeness, an awful child (with an annoying, not creepy, voice that feels more a badly dubbed than scary) and a series of events that sends them towards some form of madness.
Now, it’s not often a film irritates me due to its lack of clarity but throughout I was asking myself: Does Vivarium want to be an art piece, packed full of minimalist touches and symbolism, or is it trying to be a satire, in the realms of Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone with less meaning but open discussion points? As you might be able to tell from my tone, it doesn’t really fit into either bracket and while that might work for some, it fell pretty flat for me and, worse of all, it’s all a bit dull.
The only blatant symbolism of what’s to come is at the very start, where we see a cuckoo in another birds nest, and a separate discussion Poot’s Gemma has with a child about dead things, and cuckoos, in a sequence where we see she’s a primary school teacher, and Tom is some type of gardener. If you notice this at the start, then it’s clear the film will have a connection to brood parasites but due to a plodding nature of the narrative, you’re waiting aimlessly for those events to happen. Also, and unfortunately, nothing more remarkable or notable hits home until it’s far too late in the story and, by then, you’ve pretty much lost any affection for it.
While I’m not saying everything needs a more complex meaning but some form of guidance, or reasons to watch, is welcomed if you want an audience to be captivated. There could be a deeper comment on the hunt for a so-called ‘perfect’ life (that doesn’t exist), or it could be aiming towards that brooding existential dread about growing up, getting a house and settling down, but that’s not explored with any depth either. This missing element is also enhanced by never learning about the lives of our characters before the events, thus never forming a true attachment before they start drowning in the chaos of what surrounds them.
Because of this absent component, we never know why they love the song they listen to, or why it matters why they dance to it later, nor anything about their individuality. We witness Jesse’s Tom and his anxiety, but is that a character trait or just the actor’s style. It’s hard to tell. There’s this cool couple before us, who are supposed to be in a loving relationship, but they might just be friends, that’s the chemistry read.
My few positives revolve around Poots commitment to the character, the minimalist nature of the visuals (only distracted by an overuse of wider, poor CGI), and a wonderful, exciting surrealist section towards the end that would have been welcomed a lot, lot earlier on. Oh, and XTC in the soundtrack.
Truthfully, this is Black Mirror territory, and a 45-minute episode would have helped cut out all the slow, over-done sequences that simply repeat what’s gone before. It could also be bad timing to watch a film about being stuck in your ‘home’, so I have to put that into mind when viewing it, but Vivarium truly disappoints because there’s not a lot to get excited about. Kafkaesque? This is far from the unsettling visions of Lynch and Kubrick but with some honing, who knows where director Lorcan Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley could the sparks of those ideas in the future.