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Vivarium feels like it could’ve been written any time in the past 50 years. Set in a surreal suburban hell, it has a definite Twilight Zone vibe.
DIRECTOR: Lorcan Finnegan
Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots are shipped off to eerie suburbia.
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star as Gemma and Tom, a young couple shopping around for their first house. They’ve got easy chemistry, and the film kicks off with a comedic tone as they visit the sales office for a new housing development in the suburbs. The guy at the front desk, Martin (British character actor Jonathan Aris), is deeply, mesmerizingly weird, but they agree to visit one of his new houses because hey, why not?
Since we all signed up to watch a sci-fi/horror movie here, we know this will obviously end in disaster. If there’s one thing you learn from the horror genre, it’s that protagonists should never buy real estate. But Gemma and Tom cheerfully drive off to a new neighborhood called Yonder, where every house is eerily identical, and painted an unnerving shade of green. Martin shows them around a pristine new house, and then vanishes, leaving them alone and confused.
Written and directed by Irish indie filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan, Vivarium’s premise is so simple that I’d risk spoiling the movie by going into too much detail. Suffice it to say that Gemma and Tom find themselves trapped in Yonder. The neighborhood has an unreal quality to it, like an unfinished Tim Burton film set or an auto-generated videogame landscape. No matter how far they walk, they always seem to end up back at “their” house. If they try to damage anything, it gets mysteriously repaired. And there’s no one else in Yonder, anywhere. They’re stuck in an endless sea of blue-green houses, with cartoonish clouds bobbing overhead.
With no explanation of where they are or why they’re here, Gemma and Tom soon realize they’re stuck here indefinitely. They won’t starve because mysterious cardboard boxes full of flavorless food keep showing up on their doorstep, but otherwise they’re being tortured by the uncertainty of their situation. It’s a cruel parody of millennial concerns about moving to suburbia: that you’ll suddenly be isolated from “real” life, trapped in a stereotypical nuclear family lifestyle from the 1950s. Hence why Vivarium feels so timeless.
Then the baby shows up.
One day, instead of delivering food, one of those cardboard boxes contains a baby. Or something that looks like a baby, anyway. Both Gemma and Tom are understandably freaked out, especially since the baby comes with instructions: if they take care of it, they’ll be released. The film’s title (which refers to the tanks used for keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets) grows more ominous with every passing day. Is Yonder some kind of social experiment? Are they only here to act as parents for this weird baby? Are they in some kind of alien zoo?
Vivarium’s simple environment and tiny cast means the film doesn’t need any complicated worldbuilding. The setting is disturbing enough as it stands, with a neat story built around the two leads. Gemma is the more sympathetic protagonist while Tom is a little edgier, leaning into Eisenberg’s deadpan comedy style and skill for tightly-wound stress. As their new home nudges them into traditional gender roles, the film offers some subtle social commentary, but overall it skews more toward the unexplained weirdness of The Twilight Zone than the heavy-handed politics of Black Mirror.
While Vivarium doesn’t have a release date yet, you can expect it to arrive in the U.S. in the next few months. It’s gripping and often bitingly funny little sci-fi/horror thriller—and it’s refreshingly weird compared to the more high-profile projects from the two leads.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor