Sometimes a movie comes along at just the right time. Lorcan Finnegan couldn’t have predicted that we would all be stuck at home, losing our minds during COVID-19 quarantine, when he started his latest project though. Back then, we were all worried about Trump and who would win The Bachelor. But as his latest horror/thriller flick Vivarium, is unleashed on streaming services everywhere, it’s hard not to see this satire on stay-at-home life as a bleak commentary on where the world is at right now.
Starting with an eerie prologue – a bird killing worms for its children – it’s clear that Finnegan isn’t a fan of the circle of life. He might not even be a fan of life in general. After establishing the protagonists as a caring couple, Gemma (Imogen Poots) stumbles upon a bird’s corpse. “It’s a part of nature,” she says ruefully. Staring at the creature as if it were their own, Gemma and Tom (Jessie Eisenberg) remember that they too have plans to fly the coop. So they go and check out a house.
The story of a couple looking to settle down is a familiar one for horror fans, and many will have a blast drawing parallels to Get Out and The Stepford Wives. But the film has its own hypnotic pull, drawing us into a world of suburban homes lined up like pickets in a picket fence, each as green as the perfectly cut grass in the neighbor’s front lawns. Only there are no neighbors. Tom and Gemma follow a real estate agent into a neighborhood called “Yonder,” then he disappears, leaving the couple stuck for who knows how long.
Trying to escape, they drive around the block a few times, only to realize they’re alone and everything under the sun is artificial. It’s as if they drove into a poorly programmed video game from 2005. The clouds look fake. The houses look fake. The only things that don’t look fake are Poots and Eisenberg, who look convincingly bewildered by everything around them. As are we.
I, for one, have never seen anything like this hellhole. And when a baby shows up in a cardboard box, with supplies to help it grow, you can’t help but laugh at the craziness of it all. “You can’t be serious!” yells Tom. In a fit of rage, the two do everything they can to escape this labyrinth. Maybe they can dig their way out? Maybe they can walk around until they get lucky?
Maybe the movie could have used a few more surprises, though? Despite an intriguing premise, screenwriters Finnegan and Garret Shanley seem to have forgotten that thrillers are fun because of their surprise twists. Vivarium does have one startling development, however, as when the baby turns 90 days old, he looks like he’s nine and talks like he’s possessed (they grow up so fast!).
But after an hour of the kid’s shenanigans, in which he mimes his parents and screams whenever he wants a bowl of cereal, it starts to feel as if we too were stuck babysitting the youngster. Putting up with tantrums is part of what being a parent means. So is answering questions along the lines of “what is a dog?” Why Finnegan wanted to put parents through these tiring times all over again is anyone’s guess, though it probably has something to do with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like message.
This is sinister genre fare, as well as a warning to young couples thinking of settling down. Conformity was the enemy in the filmmaker’s debut feature, Without Name, so you can bet on it being the enemy again here. This time around, he frames his characters in close ups to start, then increasingly pulls his camera back to create an increasing sense of loneliness. His point is especially scary when seen stuck at home: Tom and Gemma are going insane not just because they’re trapped inside their house, though that’s part of it, but also because buying a suburban house was the trap to begin with.
In the real world, vivariums are glass cases used for inspecting animals. In the movie Vivarium though, which uses its characters as lab rats, we’re asked to inspect ourselves.
Vivarium is a fun little thriller, though it's not without its problems.