When real estate agents refer to a “forever home,” it’s usually not taken literally — just that the lawn is green, the neighbors are nice, the schools are good, and that you may be compelled to stay there for a very long time.
In Lorcan Finnegan’s 2019 sci-fi thriller Vivarium, the term should be taken more seriously.
The film focuses on Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots), a young couple on the market for their first home who find themselves touring a rigidly monotonous, planned community called Yonder. The realtor is an odd fellow named Martin (Jonathan Aris) who dresses like a Mormon missionary and smiles as if practicing in a mirror. He takes them to unit No. 9 – identical to all its neighbors in every way, but for some reason, Martin can really see Gemma and Tom clicking with it. This is no “starter,” he says, but a place they could have a family and stay indefinitely. A forever home.
After Martin vanishes mid-tour and leaves Tom and Gemma on their own, the young couple discovers that Yonder is a metaphysical oddity — no matter which direction they drive their Volkswagen, they end up pulling up to the curb at unit No. 9. After hours searching the immaculately manicured (and empty) streets for a road back to the highway, they opt to just stay the night and figure things out in the morning. But no such luck. Walk toward the sun for 12 hours through identical backyards and finally find a house with lights on inside? It’s your unit, No. 9, obviously, once again. Nothing to be done.
Vivarium is uniquely strange throughout, but there’s no shortage of recognizable forbears, including Groundhog’s Day, Waiting for Godot, and The Stepford Wives. Once a box appears at their stoop containing an infant baby boy they’re instructed to “raise” in order to be released, it also channels stories in which parents grapple with the fact that they might hate their children.
This child — Tom calls him “it” and Gemma goes with the slightly kinder “the boy” — is an impressively crafted little weirdo. Only a few weeks after arriving as a newborn, the kid appears to be about five years old and adopts a voice that can only be described as “sounding exactly like Bea Arthur on Golden Girls." It’s likely just the voice of the child actor (Sean Jennings) slowed down, but the intelligent, vaguely feminine maturity it imbues his already-spooky lines is straight-up upsetting.
A few weeks after his initial growth spurt, he looks to be about 20. No explanation given. And there are plenty more logic-defying rules at unit No. 9: The food, which is delivered vacuum-sealed from an unknown source, has no taste for Gemma and Tom, though the kid enjoys his morning cereal quite a bit. Any destruction to the house disappears as soon as Gemma and Tom look away from it. And outdoors, the skies are permanently dotted with fluffy clouds and picturesque sunsets that would be pretty if they didn’t look so much like children’s wallpaper.
I’ve probably said too much.
There are a lot of good things about Vivarium. The shots of the neighborhood are at times stunning, particularly the MC Escher-ish visual headaches, images of suburban architecture that isn’t so much sprawling as it is upsettingly infinite. And while there are some parables about suburban ennui and gendered relationship conflict — Tom is grumpy and spends his days rationing cigarettes and digging a hole, and Gemma takes on most of the parenting duties for the little it/boy — thankfully the story (from Finnegan and Garret Shanley) does not lean too heavily on such worldly concerns.
The movie is only around 100 minutes long, but it could stand to lose a few. More than anything, there’s kind of an off-putting editing rhythm during scenes of dialogue, with shots inexplicably lingering on faces and expressions that really do not need to be lingered on. Sometimes it feels like watching a live broadcast being operated by a distracted producer. At first, you might think these delayed cuts are telling you something about the plot, but not from where I’m sitting.
A “vivarium,” which is not spoken during the film, is an umbrella term for aquariums and terrariums and the like — “a place, such as a laboratory, where live animals or plants are kept under conditions simulating their natural environment, as for research.” Knowing this going in (which I did not) might clarify some of the ambiguities and soften the pang of the “twist” (meh) toward the film’s conclusion.
But after it ended, I kept thinking about aquariums and what fish-owners have to do to take care of their animals, and why. The tank must be kept clean. The fish must eat. The fish must be comfortable. Not knowing much about what fish thoughts entail, or if they have them at all, we’re left to provide the bare minimum to ensure their survival and mimic their natural world as best as we understand it. It may even feel noble to provide that kind of sanctuary. But to the fish inside the tank, that sterile, artificial existence might very well feel closer to a vision of hell.
Vivarium is available for streaming now on Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.