Cinema Review: Vivarium


Posted 2 months ago in Cinema Reviews

Dublin dance festival 2020 – Desktop
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Director: Lorcan Finnegan                                                                                            

Talent: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris

Release Date: 27 March

“All we wanted was a home.” Gemma (Imogen Poots) is exasperated as her search for a home with husband Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a sinister turn in Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s new feature.

A decade ago, I met Vivarium co-writer Garret Shanley at a comic convention, where he was selling hilarious parodies of ‘50s horror and superhero comics. When I told him I wanted to be a comic writer, he dryly responded, with only a hint of despair, that there was no living to be made out of that.

Flash-forward to 2020, and Shanley, along with co-writer and director Lorcan Finnegan, has created Vivarium, an unsettling science fiction thriller starring Hollywood stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. It’s a long way from the glorified gazebo that held Dundrum Comic Con all those years ago.

The film follows Tom and Gemma, a happy young couple hoping to buy a house. While on the hunt for a home, they meet an estate agent called Martin who tells them of a new development called Yonder. Martin is, in a word, bizarre. He possesses a hysterical plastic grin, puts emphasis on the wrong words in sentences, and waves his arms around in gestures that are meant to be enthusiastic, but comes across as utterly rigid. It seems like actor Jonathan Amis has been told to ape a video-game character from the late ‘90s.

Nonetheless, Tom and Gemma indulge this hopelessly strange man and follow him to Yonder an endless parade of identical, empty bungalows that stretch on for miles. Here Finnegan and his cinematographer MacGregor recall the cool palettes and smooth camera work of David Fincher when depicting this anti-septic Legoland.

When Martin disappears, the two find themselves trapped in this uninhabited estate. Driving around in circles for hours, they seek refuge in the house they viewed. After days spent trying to escape, a package arrives at their door containing food and a baby. The message inscribed on the inside; ‘Raise the child, and you will be released.’

What ensues is a strange cocktail of domestic drama and science fiction horror. The boy, who grows at a supernatural rate, is a nasty piece of work. He shrieks when he wants food, talks in an unnerving warbly voice, and seems incapable of any kind of human behaviour that isn’t wholly imitated from his guardians.

With no contact to the outside world, the couple tries to occupy their time any way they can. Tom starts to dig a hole in the garden, trying to find an end to Yonder, while Gemma becomes more invested in raising this monstrous child. Their relationship starts to disintegrate, and before long, the couple represent a warped version of suburban ennui. But while Eisenberg and Poots do their best to sell this downward spiral, it all too often it feels like the machinations of the writers, out to prove a point.

What really makes Vivarium so compelling is its sheer revulsion for children. It’s up there with Eraserhead in its deep-seated anxieties about child-rearing: the effect they have on relationships, the alienness of young children to their parents, how society pressures us into producing more of them for a capitalist society, hungry for more labour. By the end, we barely discover what the child and Yonder truly are. But we know they are trying to replace us, and we know that they will win.

Words: Jack O’Higgins

Illustration: Barry Haughey

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