Vivarium: A thin critique of suburbia

While Vivarium has moments of real terror and explores some interesting sci-fi concepts, its ultimately thin characters and lack of stakes leaves the viewer wanting more. This 2020 film by director Lorcan Finnegan follows couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) as they are shown a house by a creepy real estate agent in an equally creepy suburban neighborhood called Yonder, a neighborhood whose slogan is “You’re home. Forever.” All of the houses in Yonder are identical, tinged in an unnatural green, and the streets seem to form an endless and inescapable labyrinth. When Tom and Gemma soon find themselves alone in the neighborhood, abandoned by the real estate agent, they attempt to leave, but find themselves trapped in the maze of endless suburbia. They flee on foot after their car runs out of gas, racing through the backyards of the houses, only to find themselves returned to the house they started at again and again. They knock on the doors of the other homes, but there are no answers. It appears that there is nobody living here in Yonder, and it is clear that something out of the Twilight Zone is going on here.

They stay the night in Yonder, only to find the next day that strange packages begin arriving. The first package contains food and all the necessities that they will need to live in Yonder, but soon they receive another package: a baby, and along with it is a note that says if they raise the child they will be released. It is an intriguing concept and enough to draw the viewer in for the rest of the movie, as it raises questions about their predicament (where did the child come from? is it human? who is holding them captive?). Unfortunately, the film never sufficiently answers these questions. It quickly becomes apparent that the child is something other than human, as it grows at an unnaturally fast rate, screams endlessly, and is captivated by odd black and white patterns of static on the television.

The mysteries surrounding this suburban neighborhood will have you questioning what it all means. Is the film trying to critique the ways that the suburbs stifle individuality? Does it have something to say about modern day capitalism? Is it mostly a sci-fi film concerned with other lifeforms? To its credit, I don’t think it was ever the aim of Vivarium to answer any of these questions, but rather to make the viewer question the reality of its characters, and to question the nature of ones own reality. Unfortunately, the story and the characters aren’t strong enough to make those questions linger after the credits roll, and the result is a forgettable, thin critique of suburban living. Had Vivarium developed its two main characters more, imbued the film with greater stakes, or further explored the existence and motives of the mysterious creatures that have created Yonder, perhaps the questions raised would feel more poignant and long-lasting. Vivarium is worth a watch if you like mind-bending sci-fi films that leave much open to interpretation, but if you’re looking for answers and a well told story you should skip it.

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