Vivarium was unfortunately a victim of the Coronavirus, with the lockdown preventing a national cinematic release in March 2020 and also therefore, some mainstream success. This was kind of ironic given that the plot involved being trapped at home, but despite this mirroring of people’s circumstances, as a video on demand offering, nobody really watched it and it therefore grossed just under £500,000. Profit-making is of course not that important, film is an art-form after all. In terms of aesthetic, tone, and message, Vivarium is a noteworthy creation. This science fiction film is routinely described as a “surreal thriller” but to me it’s very minimalist and intentionally mundane which is integral to the plot. Vivarium is also like a play, starring only four people; a couple consisting of a teacher and a gardener, an estate agent, and a child, with only three of the characters interacting in any given scene making it feel very much like theatre.
The plot is straight-forward: after work one day, Tom and Gemma drive to Yonder, a suburban housing development built by a company called “Prospect Properties” which is pitched to them as “all you need and all you want” by a quirky salesman named Martin. Martin also ominously tells them that Yonder is located “near enough and far enough; just the right distance”. Once Gemma and Tom are shown around a show house, number 9, the agent disappears. The couple try to drive away from Yonder but can’t, seemingly stuck in an endless loop terminating at number 9 every time they turn a corner. After their futile attempts at escape, they’re left with no petrol in their car, no signal on their phones, and therefore no way out or any means of communication with the outside world. The couple therefore, have to live at number 9 and after a night’s rest they notice that they’ve been left food outside their house in a box by a company called “Prospect Foods”. The next day there’s another box, this time containing a baby boy and the box reads “raise the child and be released”…
Online reviews have remarked about this film’s low budget and yes, it sometimes shows. The bird’s eye view of Yonder and the never-ending arcing of the streets look very CGI, even cartoonish and false, but this adds to the narrative of living in an alien enclosure; a vivarium. The medical-toned, aquamarine house coating in the Yonder estate reminded me of the homes in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and also reality shows like Big Brother and Back To Reality, and the cloud-shaped clouds in the weather-less sky looked like a warped Teletubbies. All of these visuals are of course there to give the look of semi-natural falseness, an alien-created terrarium for the purpose of viewing (and nesting).
The opening titles which show footage of a cuckoo instinctively killing and taking over its surrogate family’s nest, I felt should have been left out because it allows this film to be viewed merely as an allegory of nature in general or possibly a filmic translation of a cuckoo (if a cuckoo was humanoid, what would it look and feel like? 🙄). Hopefully, this isn’t the case. I saw Vivarium as a comment about the pointlessness of life, family, and human existence. If you bypass all the elements of our lives where we feel we’ve made choices, and take a step back and actually look at the robotic and repetitive nature of our life cycle, you cannot help but see the utter nonsense of living; you’re born, you age, you pair-up, and you give birth and die and the cycle continues with no end and no point. How is everyone not an antinatalist?
On a slightly less important level, Vivarium could be merely a comment on the mundanity of suburban living, and the non-individuality of new-build estates and pre-fab housing. But again, the dad character digging in the garden to no avail came across to me as our familial weekend chores-cum-distractions; home improvement, decorating, mowing etc. Seeing human life condensed into a 97 minute sci-fi movie, you really have to question: what are we doing it all for? Our children? But if we never conceive what’s the point of anything we do or “achieve”? So that’s back to the paradox of our existence; live only to die, so make a copy of yourselves, and another, so this sad, pointless cycle of shite can continue until our species’ inevitable and unavoidable extinction. Hey, maybe the Earth is a hermetically sealed experiment with a higher lifeform watching and observing us, marveling at our idiocy.
Whilst reading a few viewer’s reviews, I came across an unexpected take on Shudder (a platform on which this film is currently available to stream) from a viewer who saw Vivarium as commentary on Autistic children…
“this is a film about how autistic people are evil, incestuous aliens who kidnap their parents and need to be exterminated. it is not subtle and it is not good. everyone involved in this production needs to be kept far away from children, particularly autistic ones, and disabled folk in general.”
johannesevans (1 skull out of 5)
This for me is the very definition of a “hot take”. Sure, a screaming alien child may have some of the characteristics of autism but you have to look at the film as a whole. I mean a boy shouting “measure me, measure me!” as he grows at an alarming rate, hilariously screams when he needs feeding, and who acts and dresses as strangely but as similarly as the estate agent (nudge, nudge) is surely not a comment about autistic people? For me, Vivarium was a comment, if not an outright warning about the innocence of children versus the scary adults they may become – imposing, dangerous, evil – another reason to be an antinatalist. The boy is also told about a dog, he has never seen one but he repeats its legend, running around woof-ing without questioning anything… a comment about one-sided human history and the indoctrination of schooling perhaps? In addition, the conversation Gemma has with one of her school children about cuckoos in the opening scene: “That’s nature, that’s just the way things are” – “I don’t like the way things are, it’s horrible” – “It’s only horrible sometimes” confirms that this film is about existence and what our world is like. Personally, I agree with the school kid.
In terms of the talent involved, the lead pair played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, are both likeable and the young boy played by Seenan Jennings is weird yet endearing. The direction and editing also keeps you intrigued and entertained for the most part, although both of these elements prevent this from being an outright “thriller” and instead makes Vivarium more of a comedic satire. From the artificial lighting to the foreboding feeling of a setting sun, there’s some brilliant art direction here too, unlike another recent sci-fi flick Little Joe which was all facade and no innards.
What lets the film down is the slight stagnancy of the middle act and the ending with the line “whatever” sounding like a Millennial dismissive sneer rather than poignant dialogue. The ending which features inter-dimensional nests for all the other alien “cuckoos”, serves to show the homogeneous nature of all humans no matter where on the world they reside, but instead of existing under the pavement they could have been in neighbouring houses (albeit in a different dimension). But that being said, the brave plot (if intentional) regarding the construct of life (and possibly nepotism given the alien estate agent job) is something to be commended. Up until the finale, the film is consistent and satisfying and had the finish been less slapdash, this would have been an 8 or 9/10. At least the XTC song “Complicated Game” ends the movie on a better note.
Vivarium does have some slight similarities with other creations. Hammer House or Fox Mystery Theater’s Child’s Play, Dark City, or The Signal all feature mysterious and alien enclosed spaces and the concept of not being able to get out or away from a particular location and driving in circles reminded me of The Legacy but aside from these quick recollections, most, if not the entire film is original which is a treat for any moviegoer these days. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, this is decent offering from both, although it’s not exactly suspenseful like the critic quotes shown in the trailer suggest. Incidentally, Imogen Poots whilst dancing to Robert Thompson’s “Rudy A Message To You” and “Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town”, looked very ’80s Ska or skin-head-ish, which is probably why she was cast in Green Room (also worth a watch). But I digress.
One of the best aspects of the film is the acting by Jonathan Aris who plays the alien estate agent/salesman Martin. Aris’ performance is unique, including facial ticks and movements not seen anywhere else. It’s very rare to see originality in acting, and Martin reminded me of no other character or performance I’ve ever seen. Aris (along with Jennings) is very funny and simultaneously eerie which is what the film tries to be or comes across as. Like I said, the plot of this movie is very distinctive. Apart from a few cases of filmic recollection, this science-fiction, comedy-mystery-drama-thriller and possibly satire about cuckoo extra-terrestrial beings is unique to say the least. It’s refreshing to see a completely original tale and not something that’s either obviously derivative, a mash-up, or and outright remake. Similar to Veena Sud’s The Stranger, Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is destined to be a cult classic. It’s the kind of film that you used to rent back in the 1980s, in the same vein as Larry Cohen‘s The Stuff or Saul Bass’ Phase IV, a science fiction movie with substance that looks at human nature along with all its shortcomings and absurdities and crafts a film around them. If it wasn’t for the final act, this would be a classic.
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