Relocating to the suburbs means a lot of things to a lot of people, with the idea of settling down in a quiet neighborhood to start a family being the American dream for some couples. To others, it represents a bland homogeny that we're all headed towards and signifies the acceptance of one's dull future. In the case of Vivarium, the suburbs represent a literal purgatory for our characters, with its narrative offering a handful of unexpected horrors and terrifying reveals, though its thematic message is blatant and obvious within its first act and it fails to offer anything insightful about the experience.
In hopes of finding a new home, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) head to a real estate agent who promises them the home of their dreams in a nearby suburb. Once they arrive in a neighborhood full of identical teal houses and investigating an interior that seems like it was designed by a factory instead of any actual people, the pair are abandoned by the agent and, when attempting to leave the community, find themselves trapped in an endless sprawl of homes, even mysteriously circling back to the very home they were offered. As supplies emerge seemingly out of nowhere and a baby arrives with the promise that, if they take care of it, they'll be set free, the pair begin to embrace their newfound domesticity while questioning the whole meaning of the situation.
As far as metaphors go, it's clear that writer Garret Shanley and director Lorcan Finnegan don't hold the idea of settling down in a quiet neighborhood too highly. Were the film's tagline simply, "Suburbia is Hell," you'd be given exactly that over the course of the film's 97-minute run time and little more. The premise of the film comes with the opportunity to explore a number of themes, yet it never extends far past what is expected of it. The film's final act does offer slightly more dissection of not just the concept of suburbia, but also the gender roles within a nuclear family and the grim landscape that this paints for individuals, though these concepts are just slight elaborations on the core themes introduced early on that fail to heighten the material to a new plateau.
Despite the squandered thematic potential, when viewed merely as an unsettling horror story in the vein of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, the film does manage to introduce some unnerving and discomforting sequences. Senan Jennings plays the young boy in the film who appears just as clueless about his situation as his surrogate parents, though the audience never feels any sympathy for him. The character might resemble an innocent child, but is played more as another being who is merely replicating what he believes to be human behavior, whether that be through repeating the actions of his "parents" or sitting down to watch "cartoons," which are merely pulsating patterns of black and white. Add to that some otherworldly voice modulation and shrieking tantrums, the film's most effective scenes are those featuring the young boy, as they are physically uncomfortable to sit through.
Poots ultimately carries the film, serving somewhat as the voice of reason and optimism, despite the frustrations of her situation. She's equal parts charming and desperate, while Eisenberg and his character have a more cynical view of their situation. The pair mostly work well together, as they don't often descend into melodramatic in-fighting, though the story jumps so quickly into their purgatory that we don't get as much time to know just how devastating their situation is and how drastically it impacts what their outlook was as a couple. In that regard, the only subtleties in the film are in regards to how far this situation deviates from their hopes for their relationship, as having a child could have aligned more with one of their perspectives and less with another, which is merely hinted at by Tom's overall reaction to their situation.
As a pure piece of horror or as disturbing sci-fi, Vivarium has enough unexpected and unsettling mythology that it builds and leaves unresolved to make for an engaging journey into what many would consider to be Hell, but as an allegorical tale of accepting one's disappointing fate within society, it leaves a lot of territory unexplored.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Vivarium lands on VOD and Digital HD on March 27th.