The definition of vivarium, which was a word I was not familiar with until watching the 2019 film of the same name, is, “an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets; an aquarium or terrarium.”
That’s essentially the premise of the science fiction thriller film Vivarium, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, with story credit also going to Garret Shanley, both giving it a go for only the second time on a feature length film. The film stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as a couple who is looking to buy a home. When they follow a real estate agent for the Yonder development to the suburban utopia, they can’t get out of the labyrinth. He disappears and every time they try to leave, they end up back at #9, the home they looked at, although every home and property is identical. Even the clouds in the sky look like an odd imitation of humanity.
Which, to the latter, that’s the point here, too. Aliens of some stripe have kidnapped Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Eisenberg) and forced them into this suburban hell to raise an alien-like baby. Throughout, the aliens have tried to imitate human behavior and conditions as much as they can. From the identical homes to the clouds to the food to the nuclear family model. However, it’s an imitation and not at all approximating how it actually is. For example, as Gemma points out, all the clouds are identical, whereas in real human environments, clouds come in all shapes and sizes. Similarly, the food is tasteless.
Even though the film is only 97 minutes, when I looked at reviews, a lot of people complained about the runtime. Yes, they said, the premise is strong, but this was more of a Black Mirror-esque episode rather than something worthy of a feature length film. I tend to agree with that assessment. The premise is strong, with the beginning a nice claustrophobic and disorienting jaunt into that world and then the ending brings it home. However, the middle tends to lag. But I also get the argument that that’s sort of the point? That Finnegan is trying to hammer home the point of how monotonous and banal suburban life is for millennials and that generates an existential fear among our generation.
To be sure, Finnegan’s metaphors here aren’t exactly subtle. As he told an interviewer, the film is a representation of the parasitism of consumer capitalism. The metaphor is perhaps heaviest with the Tom character, who becomes obsessed with digging a hole in the front yard, thinking it will … lead to something? But instead, as it turns out, he’s quite literally been digging his own grave. He dies and the alien offspring they “raised” throws his body into the hole (and Gemma later).
This film is bleak and almost nihilistic in that way. Neither character survives, and Gemma falls into other dimensions to see other humans also failing to survive. The cycle continues apace, with their alien offspring replacing the previous real estate agent.
Overall, even though I disagree with the usual slam against consumerism and capitalism — after all, contrary to Finnegan’s claim that capitalism strips human life of all of its character and emotion, it’s capitalism that largely created the ability for human beings to even engage in pursuits other than surviving, i.e., art, music, love, and yes, even childhoods! — I appreciate any film that’s wholly original and trying something, even if the execution doesn’t land completely. I do think these ambiguous films have to give us something more to grab onto. The middle act could have done that perhaps.
Also, I hate to admit this because I’m a huge Eisenberg fan and love practically every film he’s done that I’ve seen, but he was a weird casting choice for this one, primarily because Tom is supposed to be a hands-on hard-working blue collar type and Eisenberg doesn’t quite fit the mold for that. On the other hand, Poots, who is a delight, was magnificent in this; you really felt like she was going crazy. I was sad when she died.
If you’re into trippy sci-fi fare, then this one is for you.