Film Review: Vivarium (2020)

The stifling horror of suburbia characterizes Vivarium and its cyclical nightmare—but it’s nothing new

In his Oscar-nominated role in Can Your Ever Forgive Me?, Richard E. Grant tries to recollect an old friend from his past. “She died… or maybe she didn’t die” he muses. “Maybe she just moved to the suburbs – I always confuse those two.”

This quip feels especially prescient when considering Vivarium, a hokey horror that sees Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) trapped within a mazelike suburban housing complex. One day, a strange estate agent disappears during a viewing. Unable to find their way out of the housing development and their car out of gas, they have no choice but to spend the night. When they wake, Gemma discovers a baby on the doorstep and a simple message: “raise the child and be released.”

Everything about Vivarium feels a little hackneyed. Lines are clean; colours are a medical blue. As an audience well accustomed to the Black Mirror-esque dynamic of modern sci fi, this unsettling set-up doesn’t feel quite as clever as it may have done ten years ago. Moreover, even with Vivarium’s release coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, the premise of house-entrapment only really lures a base interest. Sketching the atmosphere in the film’s first third, everything is in place to develop the story. You then wait for the ‘point’ to be made—but that never happens. 

There are many touches in Vivarium recognisable from other works. For example, Tom’s obsession with digging a hole in the garden and his hatred of the infant they are raising has undeniable links to Sam Shepard. In his seminal play Buried Child, a family experience the frailty of the American Dream and the fragmentation of the nuclear family. Additionally, twenty years ago American Beauty bared the soullessness of the suburbs to the masses. Donnie Darko, The Stepford Wives, Blue Velvet, Edward Scissorhandsall these films have proven or parodied how there is violence and terror lurking behind neat picket fences and rose bushes. We get it: sometimes settling down forms a nice metaphor. 

To the film’s credit, Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s sound design is unsettling. Atmospherically creepy and possessing the claustrophobia of a metronome, it’s one of the movies’ saving graces. Despite this, there are just too many things that irritate as opposed to intrigue. Swirling puzzles. Unexplained turns. Bland dialogue. The estate agent, aka ‘creepy guy’, offensively and lazily is given autistic traits (similar to how ‘evil guy’ in film is often given facial scarring). Eisenberg and Poots are excellent and nuanced actors who attempt to give dimension to their roles, but this is nonetheless material wasted on their talents.

The Verdict

Despite only lasting for 97 minutes Vivarium somehow drags on, like a houseguest overstaying its welcome.
Rating: 4/10

Words by Steph Green

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