Review: Vivarium

Poster for Vivarium, showing an illustrated birds-eye view of a neighbourhood full of identical houses. A car is parked in front of one house, and two people stand in the glare of its headlights.

***½

When young couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) set out in search of a new home, it’s safe to say they did not expect to wind up playing house with a strange alien child. Trapped in a picture-perfect neighbourhood full of identical houses with no hope of escape but the promise of release once the child reaches maturity, the couple’s bond – and their minds – soon begin to fray.

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan from a script he co-wrote with screenwriter Garret Shanley, Vivarium eschews the trend of confronting ‘timely’ issues, instead forging a story that feels timeless, or perhaps outside of time entirely – perhaps fittingly, watching Vivarium always feels like we are on the outside looking in. We are not following Tom and Gemma’s story from their perspective but watching on as impartial observers. This feeling of emotional distance is largely down to Finnegan’s directorial style, which keeps a clinical detachment from his subjects that adds to the feeling of uneasiness created by the strangeness of the setting and the mystery of the couple’s entrapment.

The image of the ‘perfect’ suburban neighbourhood (albeit here without the ‘perfect’ residents) recalls an archetypical ‘50s America that has been subverted by sci-fi and horror fiction ever since, and with the otherworldly neighbourhood of Yonder Finnegan dials the uncanny Stepford Wives aesthetic up to eleven. From the production design to the visual effects, every aspect of the production comes together to create an odd, not-quite-real imitation of a suburban neighbourhood, complete with identical houses and cartoonish ‘cloud-shaped’ clouds.

Even some of the performances have the same uncanny quality, with Jonathan Aris bringing a wonderful weirdness to house salesman Martin that leads to some humorous interactions with the two leads. Once the film enters the labyrinthine neighbourhood of Yonder, only Gemma and Tom themselves remain naturalistic, their very believable behaviour only highlighting the peculiarity of their surroundings. As the unlucky couple trapped in domestic hell, Eisenberg and Poots do a fine job of empathetically showing a relationship between two good people deteriorating due to circumstances beyond their control.

Perhaps fitting for a mystery, Vivarium is a slow burner. It never quite starts to drag, but after the audience has sat through one and a half hours of slow-burning weirdness in the expectation of a satisfying solution to the film’s various mysteries, it feels somewhat of a betrayal when the final reveal leaves so much unexplained.

A unique premise with an intriguing mystery at its core, Vivarium is a solid sci-fi with stylistic flair and compelling lead performances. Though it may be a little overlong for the limited scope of its eventual reveal, it is nonetheless an absorbing indie that will appeal to fans of the genre.

Vivarium is streaming now.