This may not be the best time to release a feature about a couple trapped in a suburban nightmare, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Are we eager to stream a film that reminds us of our own predicament? Perhaps there’s a vicarious pleasure in watching others doing it harder than oneself. Vivarium may have an extra source of appeal in property-mad Sydney as a real estate horror movie.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are Gemma and Tom, a young couple planning for their future. Thinking, in an idle sort of way, that it’s time to get a first home they visit a peculiar real estate agent who is spruiking a new development called Yonder. It doesn’t appear very promising, but the agent, who looks and acts like an alien, insists they should make an inspection. After all, what harm is there in looking?
“Yonder. You’re home right now”, says a sign with the inevitable picture of a happy family. “Quality family homes. Forever.” It’s the last word that has an ominous ring.
The estate consists of row after row of identical green boxes. Two storeys, pitched roofs, looking like the houses on the Monopoly board; each with a small patch of grass in the front and back yards. Despite the salesman’s claim that these properties are selling fast there doesn’t seem to be a single inhabited building in the entire enclave.
It’s not an attractive prospect, but the agent insists they inspect No. 9, which is already furnished in the blandest possible style. While Gemma and Tom are in the backyard their host disappears. This is odd, but it’s only when they try to leave the estate that they become alarmed. They drive around for hours, looking for an entrance which has vanished. When their car runs out of petrol they find themselves back in front of No. 9. And so the ordeal begins.
For the rest of the film we will watch Gemma and Tom trying to cope with the weirdness and boredom of life in Yonder. Food and supplies appear, as if by magic, in cardboard boxes on the front pavement. A more startling gift is a baby in a box, which bears a message: “Raise the child and be released”. In no time at all the baby has grown into a little boy who looks like a junior Jehovah’s Witness, in neat short-sleeved white shirt and black trousers. Not only does he grow with prodigious speed, the child has the ability to mimic Gemma and Tom’s voices with the accuracy of a recording device. When he wants to be fed he emits a piercing, high-pitched scream. No wonder Tom refers to the new addition as “it” rather than “him”.
As there is no escape from Yonder, and virtually nothing to do, Tom begins to dig a hole in the front yard. This will become an obsession, occupying him day and night. In the meantime, Gemma keeps telling the creepy little boy not to call her “mother”.
Viewers may begin to wonder where this is going. “Most probably nowhere” was my growing suspicion.
Vivarium feels like a great idea that became progressively more humdrum as it was elaborated in a narrative. The problem begins with Gemma and Tom, who are neither interesting nor sympathetic, although it’s only fair to admit that director, Lorcan Finnegan and scriptwriter, Garret Shanley, make little effort to familiarise us with the duo before they plunge them into toytown.
The sets are immaculate but the metaphor of the suburbs as a prison that enforces a deathly conformity on its residents is as old as Pete Seeger singing “Little boxes, little boxes…” in 1963. Or perhaps as old as Lewis Mumford’s critiques, which began in the 1920s and carried on for decades. Or even older, starting with Charles Dickens.
There’s nothing much in Vivarium we haven’t seen before, although that’s not a major offence. Originality is but one index of success, and less important than dialogue, characterisation, and all those intrinsically cinematic elements that draw us imaginatively into the world of a film. Alas, where these things need to be sharp, in this movie they are blunt. It’s relatively easy to predict most of the story, apart from one climactic scene when Gemma is afforded a glimpse of the secret behind house No.9. As this sequence only adds to the mystery there’s an irritating sense that the filmmakers are being too clever for their own good, or maybe their ideas are just as muddled as the viewer’s.
The film makes most sense as a fable about real estate – about the receding dream of owning one’s own home that traps families into expensive mortgages and monotonous lifestyles. Vivarium may have seemed like an idea with loads of potential and bags of charm, but it’s a hard one to sell.
Directed by Lorcan Finnegan
Written by Garret Shanley, Lorcan Finnegan
Starring Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Hardwicke, Jonathan Aris
Ireland/Denmark/Belgium, rated M, 97 mins
Available on VOD from April 16
Google Play, iTunes, Telstra, Fetch and Umbrella Entertainment
Foxtel on Demand from May 6
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 April, 2020