Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are prisoners in their own home, stuck in a two-story green house in a deserted suburb in Vivarium. Trapped indefinitely, they have no idea if they will ever make it out. Their dream life in a perfect neighborhood has turned out to be a nightmare.
Vivarium is a science-fiction/horror movie by Irish director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley. The film starts out with an ordinary situation: a young couple, Gemma and Tom are looking for a home to move into together and, eventually, start a family. During their house hunt, they come across Martin (Jonathan Aris), a very peculiar real- estate agent who wants to show them Yonder, a suburban neighborhood. They follow him there out of curiosity. But as the saying goes – curiosity killed the cat.
Soon after the house tour is finished, Martin vanishes. Tom and Gemma try to find their way out but seem to be oddly trapped in front of house number nine. It doesn’t matter for how long they drive through the labyrinth-like neighborhood, or which turns they take, they keep ending exactly where they started, at house number nine. It becomes clear that there’s something dark and sinister in this place that pretends to be so perfect, so well-organized and symmetrical.
When their car runs out of gas, Tom and Gemma have no other choice but to sleep at the house. They soon become trapped there like mice in a cage, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, being fed dull food that they receive in cardboard boxes from the real-estate company. The already terrifying situation takes a grim turn when they receive a very disturbing surprise – a baby in a box, with the instructions ‘Raise him and be released’.
What the couple goes through is terrible mental torture that slowly drives them insane. They have been stripped of their freedom and free will. They are no longer owners of their life or future; their path has been set for them and there seems to be no way out of it. As days go by, Tom and Gemma look more and more unhealthy, worn out and distressed, as if they are starting to lose hope. Their relationship is inevitably also affected, especially as they have a different approach to what they should do with the kid, who is growing strangely fast. Gemma and Tom become more and more isolated, not only from the world but also from each other. Tom starts to obsessively dig a hole in the backyard, and Gemma is the only one looking after the baby boy, falling into a motherly role to a kid that is not hers nor probably even human.
Without a doubt, what makes Vivarium very effective is the stellar interpretations of every single one of the characters. We are visual testimonies of the worsening mental and physical health of Tom and Gemma, and we suffer with them. Imogen Poots is especially good with her impersonation of Gemma, and leaves a strong impression, even winning Best Actress in the Sitges Film Festival in Spain for her role in the movie. The performances of the child are also of note. Senan Jennings is amazing as the bizarre and irritating young boy, and his older counterpart, played by Eanna Hardwick’s performance is as good as it is sinister and eerie.
Vivarium is not a nice movie to watch. The film is very stressful and asphyxiating, and it keeps you on edge and uncomfortable for the 96 minutes that it lasts. The viewer feels as trapped as Tom and Gemma are. The claustrophobia generated by this situation is highlighted with clever and thoughtful set design. In Yonder, this apparently perfect suburb, even the clouds seem to be painted on a canvas. Every single cloud has the same, neutral shape. Streets, homes and the sky, everything is identical. There’s no wind, no background noise, and it’s always sunny. Yonder proves that what can look beautiful, peaceful or perfect can also be a source of unrest and become a terrible prison. In the movie, there’s no attempt to explain the mysteries and although the ending is not entirely unexpected, that doesn’t make it less disturbing.
The final credits are welcomed with relief, and finally, the viewers are free to go back to their happy, easy and ordinary life. People across the world can relate to Vivarium in the era of COVID-19, which has altered everyone’s lives. Like Tom and Gemma, people are experiencing social isolation, quarantine, and domestic routine. But at least, looking at the sky through one of the windows at our own homes, we still see clouds with different shapes, we still hear the birds singing in the morning and can feel the wind in our face when we go for a walk. We can still appreciate all the little things that are missing in Vivarium’s nightmare.
It hits Foxtel on Demand from 6 May 2020.
The title is Latin for “place of life”. It also alludes to an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research. Often, a portion of the ecosystem for a particular species is simulated on a smaller scale, with controls for environmental conditions.