Vivarium (2019) — When a weird idea goes nowhere fast

“What am I suppose to do with him?”

Justin’s rating: I’ve never been partial to lime green as a color scheme

Justin’s review: Sometimes you encounter movies where there is no deeper message. Sometimes there is a message that’s skillfully woven into the fabric of the film in such a way that it adds to the full experience in retrospect. And sometimes a movie is made where the director picks up a big sledgehammer called “SUBTEXT” and starts swinging away like he’s cosplaying Thor.

Guess which one this is.

With an eye on the inherent creepiness and personality-free design of modern suburbia — and a happy coincidence that connects with the lockdowns of the COVID era — Vivarium batters viewers across the face with message instead of letting it creep in. And that’s a shame, because there’s a good Twilight Zone-esque tale here that’s getting smothered in someone’s pretention.

Couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse “My face is so unlikable” Eisenberg) take a gamble on house hunting by visiting the suburbs of Yonder. In the middle of a tour through a house that’s unsettlingly off, their creepy realtor disappears. With a growing sense of panic, the couple discover that they can’t find a way out of the development, they have no phone signal, and there is no one living in any of the other houses. They’re trapped in an endless purgatory.

It gets worse, believe it or not. Their new “home” features tasteless food, unnatural (and unmoving clouds), and a baby. The baby is delivered to their front door with the written instruction: “Raise the child and be released.”

At this point, I should mention that the director has a back-up hammer with the word “PARENTING STRUGGLES” stamped on it that he likes to plink on various surfaces. So yes, the stressed-out couple now have to contend with raising a child that’s clearly not human in any sense — he mimics their speech, watches crazy patterns on the TV, and has a neck that bulges out like a bullfrog.

This is, by far, the creepiest kid you’ll ever see on film, and we only take partial comfort that Gemma and Tom hate him as much as we do. He’s an absolute inhuman creature, repeating their past arguments and copying their mannerisms, screaming when he doesn’t get what he wants right away, and all with a voice that’s not a kid’s at all. He also pops off to Creepy Alien Kid School once in a while to be trained in whatever it is. A politician?

The problem with Vivarium is that the prison is so perfect that by the second act, the couple have pretty much resigned themselves to this hellish fate. There’s no forward momentum, no more escape attempts, nothing for them to do other than to be saddled with alien kid until it’s finished growing. And when you stick your protagonists in a helpless situation, you’ve done the same to your audience.

And if the audience is sticking it out to the end for an explanation, for a full reveal of all of the secrets, well, you’re out of luck here. It’s like the director had a great setup, had some subtext that he wanted to drive home, and then ran out of a way to bring it home. So to speak.

Didja notice?

  • The cuckoo metaphor is not subtle
  • “Near enough and far enough” is not a great answer for “where is it located?”
  • The kid repeating arguments that we never heard
  • “Murder me! Murder me!”
  • Woof woof woof
  • The brain-maze TV

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