VIVARIUM Thrives and Terrifies in Its Claustrophobic and Deceptively Simple Premise4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
In every stable relationship, all roads lead to a home, or at least that is what Gemma and Tom are led to believe. As they begin their search for the perfect nest, they find themselves trapped in ‘Yonder’, an estate that promises everything a family truly needs – even a baby.
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Eanna Hardwicke
Country: Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Denmark
Runtime: 98 minutes
While looking for a new home to start their family, a young couple, Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) seem to have stumbled into an opportunity of a lifetime. Over at “Yonder”, a newly constructed suburb, there’s everything that a couple could ever ask for.
The houses are fully furnished with sleek – albeit gawky – middle-class furniture. There is a seemingly endless supply of all the necessities a family would ever need – even a baby. There just seems to be one caveat: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. This is essentially the premise of Vivarium, a smartly executed dystopian thriller that never fails to excite and haunt throughout its Kafkaesque plot.
Sure, there are doses of body horror and mind-bending sequences, but really the film’s terror comes from its choking sense of claustrophobia thanks to its superb world-building. The windless world of Vivarium looks like something out of a René Magritte painting with its perfectly shaped clouds and endless rows of identical houses. The film does not hide its distaste of modern middle-class living, framing the all-too-cheery world with liberal use of symmetry to echoing a sense of distress. The terror is only compounded by its sparse score as it creaks and murmurs with the characters.
Vivarium’s sparse details and plot felt like a double-edged sword. After realising that they are trapped in the labyrinth-like suburbs, Tom and Gemma are promised their freedom only if they raise a child gifted to them in a box. There are hardly any immediate tasks to be faced by the leads afterwards, resulting in a second act that might have dragged on for a little too long for some.
I felt it was exactly because of the slow, methodical pace that I shared their sense of desolation. Meanwhile, it was the relatable dynamic between the leads as a couple where I cared about their journey as they navigate and uncover the mystery behind their circumstances.
Both respond to their newfound roles and duties much like any other couple outside Yonder would with a child. They fall apart due to their different roles in the family but eventually find their way back to each other. Heck, they even fight over what is best for their child.
Both characters have their flaws but there is a sense that each complete each other. This comes through in the performances of Eisenberg and Poots, and in their chemistry together. Poots does stand out from the pair with her incredible emotional range and with probably one of the most heart-wrenching ‘ugly cries’ I have seen on screen. Follow the tale to its horrifying end and the audience will uncover a surprisingly sweet affirmation of love between the two leads.
Overall, I think Vivarium should appeal to fans of shows like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. It is horror that hardly – if ever – relies on high-grade CGI effects. Instead, Vivarium executes its premise through effective emphasis on atmosphere, with a pair of winning leads constantly pushing the plot forward. I left the theatre both horrified and inspired.
Get a glimpse of the dystopian horror flick below: