Synopsis – A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses.
My Take – Despite not being often produced, suburbia horror has always been quite a popular genre among filmmakers. Working as a social satire, filled with metaphors and horrific elements, these films, like The Stepford Wives and The Burbs, often aim to bring spotlight on how consumerism has been eating away at our modern life, and how they affect our homes and communities.
This latest high-concept sci-fi mystery too initially feels like it’s been cut from the same cloth, especially when it starts off as a savage mockery of our homemaking aspirations, and while it does throw its own thing into the mix, it unfortunately doesn’t work more than a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of filmmakers biting off more than they can chew.
Though writer-director Lorcan Finnegan’s pristine nightmare holds a lot of promise, but with every deeper threat, every eerie wrong turn, there’s an unspoken feeling about how a particular event is going to lead to something, until it ceases to.
Sure, the film possesses a single-minded intensity and tone different from most films plus it also has talented actors like Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots bringing in their A-game, but the point of the film after a while just runs thin, and when the finale kicks in, you are just left feeling unbalanced and unsatisfied.
The story follows a young ordinary couple, Gemma (Imogen Poots), a cheerful kindergarten teacher and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a genial handyman, who are looking to buy a house together. In order to do so, they stop by a real estate office, where they are greeted by the only employee in office, Martin (Jonathan Aris). While they both find Martin’s behavior very odd, they do agree to follow him, to their new development called Yonder.
Upon arrival, they’re quick to decide that the Windows 98 wallpaper looking neighborhood isn’t for them, but trouble begins when they find themselves stranded as soon as Martin disappears. And when their attempts at driving out of the neighborhood also fails, as they keep circling around the rows of identical houses before returning to the house they are trying to leave, their descent into madness begins.
Making matters worse, a box containing a baby arrives on their doorstep, with a message commanding to raise the child in order to be released from their situation.
Without a doubt the film has a curious premise, more like a lab experiment of a relationship drama, which raises questions like, Will they first turn against each other, or dig themselves into the ground? How do you cry for salvation when you don’t even know where the danger is coming from? Why does this child grow at an accelerated rate? Who are these people watching over Gemma and Tom like a science experiment? The powers that be don’t want them dead, but what are they trying to tap into? But the problem with the film is that every question, as urgent and pertinent as it is, adds itself to the pile – by the end of the story, there’s little more satisfaction and still the sense, 97 minutes later, that this has all made for an interesting 10 minutes of exposition, waiting for something greater.
Also, the film struggles to stick on one idea for too long before jumping to the next bit, for example, Tom becomes obsessed with digging into the ground and Gemma suddenly begins to harness her maternal extinct, but there are just too many ideas thrown on the wall and not enough of them stick to fully satisfy the character arcs being set up.
Clearly a lot of thought went into the film, and director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley hint at a few different deeper meanings, in the sense, they are probably making a dig at suburban life, or maybe about how to make marriage work, or about parenthood, or even just finding joy in life when joy seems impossible.
But unfortunately, as things progress, it becomes more evident that there’s no deeper level to the film. Holes only get dug deeper rather than new obstacles to overcome, and the sense of paranoia can only be sustained so long before it becomes more preposterous.
Like much of speculative fiction there’s a danger always in the concept being richer than the execution, and certainly that’s the case here. Instead the film resorts to alien scares. Something which way obvious when Gemma and Tom discover that the development seems to go on forever, and the boy spends his evenings watching black and white patterns on TV. On paper, the film might have seemed like a puzzle and a story full of twists, but with poor execution and thin character developments, nothing works in the end.
To the film’s credit, the alien presence is effective, lending it the tenseness of a horror film and engaging the audience where the story fails. Especially when it comes to the boy who speaks in an amalgam of his caretakers’ voices, punctuated by endless screams and barking, also his face is just a little too shiny, hair a little too precisely combed, and he’s constantly around. Gemma and Tom are never left alone. As he grows up, he’s only more terrifying, any sheen of childhood innocence utterly disappearing.
Performance wise, Imogen Poots is probably the strongest of the leads, as she has got a lot more material to work with, while Jesse Eisenberg proves himself once more as a master of neurosis, operating in unflappable stares and jittery body language to communicate the impossible frustration of losing control of your life. Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke are capably creepy, while Jonathan Aris leaves a mark in his small role. On the whole, ‘Vivarium’ is a disappointing exercise, let down by its overstuffed and undercooked effort at original storytelling.
Directed – Lorcan Finnegan
Rated – R
Run Time – 97 minutes