Vivarium

Vivarium

Vivarium
2019Sci-Fi ∙ 1h 37min

There must be a name for the genre in which films like Vivarium sit. Movies that feel more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror than they do a fleshed-out motion picture. A high-concept, sci-fi and/or horror jewel box that isolates the viewer in single location with a very limited cast of two to four characters. As those characters’ relationships and the claustrophobia increase day-after-day, the tension and dread builds. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin or Ex Machina. Or, a more recent example, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

There’s not a super-easy way to explain this movie. But it does start with a little film about the lifecycle of the cuckoo. A bird who apparently lays its eggs in other bird’s nests, leaving their offspring to be raised by others. A weird, parasitic trait that ties in with the plot of the movie in a very direct way. The transition from this science-class-feeling film to the movie itself is a little jarring, and in retrospect seems unnecessary and a bit too obvious. Maybe it could have been woven in at the end somehow, but its inclusion is just a little too much sausage making reveal as to what is going to happen and what happens in the movie itself.

All that out of the way, the simplest way to outline the narrative is to start with our young couple, Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots). A reunion for the actors from their Solitary Man days. They live somewhere in Europe — maybe Belgium, maybe Ireland? Which immediately puts a weird, foreign angle on the film. And makes you wonder why the Tom character — who seems singularly American — is in this place. Anyhow, they immediately feel off as a couple to me, but maybe that was unintentional and just the awkwardness of the script? Or maybe it’s just the visual of Eisenberg and Poots together that feels discordant. They are clearly debating taking their relationship to the next level and committing to be becoming adults and purchasing a home together. They end up in an odd real estate agent office, are driven out to a creepy subdivision of identical houses by a weird real estate agent and left there by him. Why they agree to this in the first place is immaterial, apparently, but…

Once they realize the agent has ditched them and that the community is a maze that is impossible to escape, they are gifted a baby to raise by some mysterious force. With the promise that if they raise the child, they’ll be released. Every attempt to escape exhausted, they settle in and give in to their isolated life. The baby turns out to be a freak who talks in adult voices and mimics them and screams for food. He is clearly not a normal child, as he also grows in a sped-up time-lapse way. Remember the cuckoo film? Yeah…

The set design and production feels like a mashup of Edward Scissorhands-era Tim Burton and a surreal Michel Gondry vibe. It’s pretty cool and effective and is impressive given what I imagine was a pretty small budget. But the movie itself leans too heavily on the look and feel of the thing in lieu of a propulsive plot. Same goes for the very narrow concept. They take that cuckoo thing to heart in a real way. Someone clearly learned about that aviary behavior and fell in love with the weirdness of it. And in trying to apply it very specifically to this psychological horror film (that only kind of sort-of tacked on sci-fi in order to make anything make any sense) kind of boxed themselves in. And that’s why it felt more like a Black Mirror episode than a feature. It could have easily been 45 minutes and been tighter and more intense. Instead we get into the Melancholia area, where we’re just kind of biding our time as the inevitable result reveals itself. Though that was a very different film.

Ultimately, was this a good film? It was just ok on the whole. Are there pieces of it that had real promise, though? Sure. The director, Lorcan Finnegan, has a very strong POV and a very cool style. He does a very good job of creating a looping sense of dread, despair and desperation. Which, again, if it could remain focused in a shorter timeframe would have been great. But that get-on-with-it sense did kick in at some point when the visuals weren’t enough to support the sagging narrative. That said, I would definitely check out Finnegan’s next film (whatever it may be), as this has the hallmarks of things I like and seems to be his jam based on his previous work. Look, if you’re into oddball, little genre films that are guaranteed to make your skin crawl a bit, this might be up your alley. Just don’t go in expecting miracles.