REVIEW: ‘Vivarium’ and the Abject Horror of Conformity

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vivarium

In the era of COVID-19, everyday life does feel like its own unique kind of horror. Which is pretty much what Vivarium is going for. The terror of the film is to be found in its unrelenting normalcy.

Vivarium stars Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg and is helmed by director Lorcan Finnegan (Without Name, Foxes). In Vivarium, Tom (Eisenberg) and Gemma (Poots) are a young and in love couple, looking forward to beginning a life together in the perfect home. A bizarre real-estate agent introduces them to a housing project called Yonder. A pastel, suburban hellscape of minimalist and identical houses. The couple is not interested and tries to leave, but cannot escape the labyrinth. Things only get stranger when an infant appears on their doorstep and, soon enough, Tom and Gemma realize that their search for a dream home has warped into a nightmare.

In a word, Vivarium is stark. It doesn’t indulge itself with fluff and mystique. The opening credits of the film show you exactly what this story is about, which only makes it more disturbing. The viewer is able to watch the ordeal unfold, helpless to prevent it and just waiting for the hammer to drop. Even the title, Vivarium, gives the game away; vivarium is quite literally the Latin word for a place to live, but it is more colloquially used to describe a controlled enclosure for animal study.

That starkness translates into every element of the film. The story is as streamlined and minimalist as the sets and the world. Everything is rigidly structured, lacking unique texture or color. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the uncanny valley. The artificial nature of it makes it all the more unsettling.

As mentioned at the outset, the narrative and messaging of Vivarium is as predictable and transparent as the rows of cookie-cutter houses. There is a very obvious criticism of suburbia and the status quo. Which would be provocative if it wasn’t such an overdone idea in film. What’s maybe more interesting is how Vivarium discusses gender roles and motherhood.

Gemma becomes the unwilling mother of a strange infant that shows up on her doorstep. As she reluctantly raises the child, that line between child and parasite becomes blurry. She pities the child and is protective of him, but the child screams and screams and drains her of her former self. Caring for that child is sapping the life out of her, driving a wedge between her and her partner, and, no matter how much she tries, she cannot and will not accept the identity of “mother.”

Brilliantly worked in among all that predictable critique of normalcy is a fascinating reflection on how the burden of motherhood wears on women. The expectation on women to become a mother is suffocating and even worse is the realization that some women are just never ready or able to be mothers, leaning into that role. Vivarium manages to insert this idea that pursuing suburban perfection can end up killing individual hopes in dreams in favor of the traditional model. It’s a concept that is really well done.

The film isn’t truly a horror, even though it plays with some disturbing sci-fi elements. It’s not quite scary, it’s not quite funny. Vivarium is quirky. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are providing a solid foundation of performances and the film is quite stylish. However, all that monotony and intentionally flat delivery isn’t assisted by very awkward pacing. The film flatlines and is able to capture, but not hold. To put it plainly, hopelessness isn’t exactly fun to watch for an extended period of time.

When it comes to Vivarium, don’t come for the story or for spooks but plan to stay for style and finesse. The film, while predictable, is just open-ended enough to provide some fun speculation among friends on what it all means. One of the better looking films you will see this year, with an edge.

Vivarium will release in theatres, on VOD and digital on March 27, 2020.

Vivarium
  • 6/10
    Rating - 6/10
6/10

TL;DR

When it comes to Vivarium, don’t come for the story or for spooks but plan to stay for style and finesse. The film, while predictable, is just open-ended enough to provide some fun speculation among friends on what it all means. One of the better looking films you will see this year, with an edge.