An eerily prescient expression of our current “sheltering in place” reality, Vivarium is a clever, deeply disturbing speculative fiction. Its stylized visuals and innovative special effects are icing on this cloying cake about living in close quarters and wondering what your life has become.
The opening scene shows a mother bird feeding its young, more graphic than cute. Then we see Gemma (Imogen Poots), a school teacher, saying goodbye to her students and chatting with a friend about the crowded real estate market. Gemma comforts a little girl who sees two dead baby birds that fell from a nest. “That’s the way things are, it’s nature,” she says, to which the child replies, “I hate the way things are.” Up in the tree is Gemma’s boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a landscaper who gently buries the birds. They’re easy and affectionate with each other as they take off in Gemma’s car.
The moment they step into the office of a new housing development called “Yonder” the film shifts tone from realism to strange stylization. The office has photos of pale mint-colored houses in rows. The sales agent Martin (Sherlock’s Jonathan Aris) is a strange obsequious man who Tom can’t resist making fun of. Martin insists that properties are being snapped up, and convinces them to take a tour. They follow him in his van, arriving at the huge development full of identical empty pastel houses. After a cursory look at the cookie cutter home, Tom and Gemma decide it’s not for them, and notice Martin has vanished. They try to leave, but despite driving for hours, they can’t get out of the circuitous development. They decide to spend the night in the house. The next day, the van runs out of gas, and they try to find their way out on foot, but with no luck.
The next day a box of food and supplies arrives, mysteriously. The food is tasteless. Soon, a wiggling wet baby boy arrives in a box. Tom and Gemma understand they are trapped and become resigned to this strange life, playing along in hopes they will be released if they perform as expected. Their carefree dating life is suddenly transformed into a rote existence, dominated by having to care for a child and find a way to make life meaningful when all they want is to escape. The two lead actors couldn’t be better: Eisenberg, who portrays Tom’s waning hope as a kind of creeping exhaustion, and Poots, whose expressive face conveys the inner struggle she feels as motherhood is forced on her. As Tom and Gemma navigate the sudden enforced intimacies of their new life, they also contemplate the existential dread that greets each waking day. Where to go? Nowhere. What to do? Nothing. What’s it for? Unknown.
The metaphorical implications are quite shocking at times, yet the story feels strangely down to earth. There’s a clear homage to Twilight Zone here, and its grandiose explorations of modern terrors and social structures. I also detected a nod to my favorite episode of Black Mirror, “Hang the DJ,” which plays people like pawns in a pre-ordained system of matchmaking. Production design is stunningly tight, with a brilliant sound design that allows every silence and every scream to echo with eerie finality. I’m not a big fan of horror films that don’t provide adequate context for unexplained occurrences, but that wasn’t a problem here. Director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley offer little justification for the way things are, and, as the little girl at the beginning points out, that seems to be the point. Vivarium is an incisive and heart-wrenching commentary on the nature of modern life, and our inability to see the bigger picture.