A house-hunting excursion turns into a nightmarish scenario for a young couple in Vivarium, a science fiction horror film directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film has its strengths, but at a time when half the world is hunkered down in quarantine in the midst of a global pandemic, the claustrophobically surreal premise of two people trapped inside a cookie-cutter house against their will might hit a bit too close to home for comfort.
(Mostly mild spoilers; one major spoiler below the gallery)
Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley made a short film in 2011 called Foxes, about a young couple trapped in an empty housing development. It was inspired, according to Finnegan, by Ireland’s “ghost estates:” the remnants of that country’s construction boom, brought down by the collapse of the housing market and global financial meltdown of 2008. Buyers found themselves trapped in homes they couldn’t unload because their mortgages were underwater. He also found inspiration in a scene from the 1990 Nicolas Roeg film, The Witches (based on the Roald Dahl novel)—namely, a scene where a little girl is trapped inside a painting by a witch, eventually growing old and dying within it.
Vivarium is the full-length feature-film version of that original idea. It premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and made its way around the festival circuit before being picked up for distribution by Saban Films. And it has been garnering quite a bit of positive word-of-mouth along the way. Per Wikipedia: “A vivarium is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research.” It translates into “place of life,” and it can be a small terrarium, for example, or something much larger, like Biosphere 2. It’s pretty obvious that the film’s suburban paradise is meant to be just such a place.
Imogen Poots plays Gemma, who is in a committed relationship with Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They decide to check out the home options in a wholesome development called Yonder (“It has all you’d need and all you’d want”), and a very creepy real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) shows them around #9. Yonder is basically a large grid of identical streets filled with identical cookie-cutter houses, with the same cookie-cutter backyards. Martin seems especially keen to show them the nursery, inquiring about their plans for children.
Things take a weird turn when Martin disappears, and Gemma and Tom try to leave. They drive around in circles, always coming back to #9, until night falls and they have no choice but to take shelter in the house. Food and other amenities are regularly delivered in packages, and soon Gemma finds a package with a baby boy inside and an ominous note: “Raise the child and be released.” They are clearly prisoners in Yonder, but they don’t have much of a choice except to comply.
(WARNING: one major spoiler below.)
As I noted when the trailer dropped earlier this year:
[The premise] calls to mind the classic folk song, “Little Boxes,” popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1960s, about cheap, tiny suburban houses “made of ticky-tacky” that “all look just the same.” We’ve seen this sort of cynical take on the conformist horrors of suburbia before: The Stepford Wives (both the 1975 cult horror film and the 2004 comic remake), for instance, or the 2017 Matt Damon black comedy Suburbicon. There’s also the 1999 episode of The X-Files (“Arcadia“), where Mulder and Scully go undercover to investigate strange disappearances in a gated community and quickly run afoul of the homeowner’s association.
There are definitely hints of this in Finnegan’s film, but it’s less of an explicit commentary on the hollowness of that 1950s-era American suburban dream. Yonder, it turns out, is an alien species’ attempt to create a vivarium that mimics that imagined idyllic suburban setting, much like The Matrix was created to lull humans into complacency, the better to control them for nefarious purposes. Why? We get a hint in the opening credits, which depict a cuckoo (the species is a well-known brood parasite) infiltrating another bird’s nest, eventually kicking out the other hatching eggs/baby birds so that mama bird feeds and nurtures the usurper. Martin’s real job is to find young couples, trap them in Yonder, and force them to raise the alien offspring, training them to pass for some semblance of human.
This was also the underlying premise of last year’s Brightburn, which turned the Superman origin story on its head, with the young extraterrestrial boy eventually turning on his adoptive parents and (by extension) the human race. And like Brightburn, Vivarium doesn’t quite measure up to its promising premise, despite some welcome flashes of humor, and a very strong performance from Poots. Her Gemma is both repulsed and protective of The Boy (Senan Jennings) in equal measure—until he reaches full adulthood, that is, and the truth about Yonder is finally revealed. But there are so many dangling questions that are never answered or addressed, and the final surreal sequence isn’t quite enough of a payoff for the viewer.
Jennings recently told Vulture that he deliberately designed the look of the film to induce a kind of low-grade anxiety, particularly the use of mint green in the color scheme. “Taken out of nature, it takes on a very toxic quality,” he said. “It’s like it’s poisonous and also quite institutional, like a hospital or a school.” But that also makes Vivarium rather difficult (and occasionally unpleasant) to watch, particularly at a time when many folks are already feeling anxious and cooped up and craving escapism in their entertainment. It would be interesting to revisit the film a few years from now, to see how well it holds up outside the context of our current predicament.
Vivarium is current streaming on Amazon Prime and VOD.