Science fiction / horror mystery Vivarium is the second feature from director/co-writer Lorcan Finnegan, who previously directed 2016 slow-burn horror effort Without Name.
Young couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are desperate to get into the housing market, so they go to investigate the offices of the Yonder housing estate. Martin (Jonathan Aris), the agent, is a strange individual and their encounter is bizarre. However, in the interests of compromise and with a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained philosophy, Tom and Gemma agree to view a house.
They arrive at the uniformly designed estate and it becomes readily apparent that Yonder is not what the couple are looking for. Martin’s strange behaviour culminates in him abandoning the viewing, so Tom and Gemma set off for home, only to find they are unable to make their way out of the estate. After driving around for hours, they discover themselves back where they started, in front of the house they were viewing. With no other choice available, they must spend the night in Yonder. From this point on Vivarium descends into surreal nightmare, as the days become circular and logic-defying.
No one can accuse Vivarium of unoriginality and while our hats are off to a movie for having its own vision and trying something truly unique, it’s unfortunate that it’s just too bizarre and obtuse to really satisfy.
Stylistically the film sits in a bizarre netherworld that clearly resembles ours, but is not. The regimented houses and cloudy blue skies of the Yonder estate blend the identikit suburbs of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, with the terrifying sub-normalcy of the Teletubbies homeworld. Minus the pastel colours and happiness.
There’s certainly enough initial intrigue, as the premise is weird and enticing, and the two central performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots give the movie legs. Eisenberg does passive-aggressive irritation better than anyone, while Poots is more of the audience avatar – approaching the situation as a puzzle to decipher.
But that puzzle is Vivarium’s undoing. With no real logic at play, anything could happen. But because there are seemingly no rules here, the consequences are hard to fathom, beyond the fact Tom and Gemma cannot escape. As result, it’s hard to engage with either story or character.
Additionally it feels like Vivarium is trying to say something, but it’s much too vague to penetrate. Is it about parenthood? Is it about home ownership? Is about thirty-something angst? Is it about the ennui of settling down? It feels too much like an unfinished thought.
In fairness to Vivarium, there is absolutely no doubt that it is one of those movies that some folks are going to love, while others are going to wonder what they’re missing out on. We should all admire a movie for stepping outside of convention and if oblique satire is your bag then Vivarium might be just the ticket. For the rest of us, it’s just too hard of a nut to crack.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Vivarium’ is released in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment on VOD from April 16 and Foxtel on Demand from May 6.