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VIVARIUM (2020)

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
Written by Lorcan Finnegan & Garret Chaney
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Danielle Ryan, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Molly McCann, Danielle Ryan, Côme Thiry, Olga Wehrly

I think a lot of points can be made by using metaphor—points that otherwise wouldn’t be either understood or appreciated if all pretense is dropped and the truth is preached to you directly. But when the metaphor is so obvious, it comes off as pretentious and eaqually preachy. I think VIVARIUM really has an interesting point to make. I also think it is good at immersing the audience in the themes and feelings it means to communicate. The problem is that I got the metaphor about five minutes into the film and this is a movie that clocks in at almost an hour-forty.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play Gemma and Tom, a happy and playful couple who seem to truly love one another. On a lark, they walk into a real estate office where an overzealous agent convinces them to check out a new community in the suburbs that is touted as being perfect for new couples. While they aren’t completely serious about buying a house in the burbs, Gemma and Tom go along with it and are taken to a community with rows of houses that look exactly the same. The agent leads them into one of the homes and then disappears, leaving Gemma and Tom trapped in this home with no way out from the labyrinthine streets that always lead back to their home, a cupboard and fridge that refills itself, and eventually the delivery of a child that they are supposed to raise in order to gain their freedom back.

The popular criticism that VIVARIUM would have made for a great TWILIGHT ZONE or BLACK MIRROR episode is valid. It makes its point early on. Suburban life is horrific. Everything looks the same. You are stripped of uniqueness and individualism and instead forced to follow the well tread pathway in order to survive. You live, you work, you procreate, and you die…and then someone comes along to take your place in the space you just vacated. This message is communicated in the very first moments that focus on a bird’s nest where its occupants are ejected one by one in order for one bird to thrive. I got the point in those first moments of the film. So why the hell should I stick around for the rest of the hour-thirty-five to have that communicated to me in a slower and more monotonous way?

Had the filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan added some nuance or variation to this theme, I wouldn’t have felt ripped off by the film, but that seems to be all he wants to communicate. I understand VIVARIUM was probably made on a tight budget. Still, even the focus on a neighbor or some other details of this prison Gemma and Tom find themselves in would have made this feel less idea-light. Was there ever someone who has escaped from this prison? Was there ever someone who refused to take the roles they are given once trapped? What differences would come up with a gay or lesbian couple? Or a couple of a different race or culture? Any of these questions would have made this concept a bit broader and infinitely more interesting. Instead, there are no neighbors and practically nothing in this world outside of Gemma, Tom, and their screaming child and that’s not reflective of the suburban life it is satirizing.

I’ve noticed a problem recently with films attempting to communicate the feeling of monotony. More specifically, just because you are trying to communicate the feeling of monotony that doesn’t mean you have to make your movie monotonous. Finnegan just gives us scene after scene of monotony to communicate the humdrum life of Gemma and Tom and it turns out, that’s pretty tedious to watch! Sure this film has its moments, but most of the time, we are supposed to marvel at the metaphor of the rigid life plan Gemma and Tom must follow.
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VIVARIUM isn’t without its moments of horror. The child they are raising is a monster. The way it talks in an adult voice and screams whenever it needs anything is horrifying. It’s something those with kids will associate with and something that will make those without kids thank their lucky stars they don’t have any. There are also some surreal moments that occur later when Gemma and Tom succumb to their fates that reminded me of BRAZIL in the absurdist and fantastical way it looks at life and the disposability of all of us in death. Still, I think this film relies on the repetitive rather than filling it with things that expand upon the point. Films like BRAZIL, DONNIE DARKO, EXCISION, and the recently released GREENER GRASS deal with the same types of concepts regarding suburbia, but those films have fleshed out their worlds in a much more entertaining and richly thematic way compared to VIVARIUM.

I left VIVARIUM with a frustrated feeling. Given the talent of the cast, I was hoping for so much more. Poots is always entertaining—one of the best young actresses out there right now. She’s given the most to work with here and does it well. Eisenberg is less nebbish here and much more watchable than in his more awkward roles. Here, he is almost normal as he easily slides into the role of worker/breadwinner as Poots does the slide into the homemaker role. The way Eisenberg and Poots play off of each other—the resentments, the strains, and the problems that arise from this situation all occur smoothly and realistically, mainly because they are such talented actors that feel comfortable with one another (and they should, given that they starred together in THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE just a short while ago). Still, I feel that the film would have benefitted if it shaved off a good twenty minutes of dirge. The point just didn’t have to be driven home so hard. VIVARIUM is all idea, but the execution is as subtle as a train wreck. While some of its scenes are downright bone-chilling, the way it beats you about the head and neck with its point makes it a hard watch.