Vivarium - noun - An enclosure meant to keep animals in a simulated environment which mimics their natural habitat...
...Sometimes the premiere of a movie coincides with real-life events which suspiciously seem to mirror or predict the outcome of the particular film. The horror comedy Idle Hands (1999) follows the story of high school students being murdered at the hand of a fellow student, which follows a pretty common slasher storyline, but this particular teen-horror unfortunately premiered ten days after the Columbine shooting. Needless to say, the ticket sales suffered and Idle Hands quickly disappeared from theatres. On the other side of the coin, in 1979 a thriller called The China Syndrome showed a reporter’s attempts to expose the dangers of a faulty nuclear power plant. Twelve days after the movie premiered the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station experienced a partial meltdown and ticket sales for the film increased as audiences wanted more nuclear-power inspired drama. Both of these films could not predict the massive events which would occur in the movies’ opening weeks, but coincidence or not, the events helped shape the success of the films. So, what if a movie premiered and it eerily echoed our current state of existence? I’m not talking about fear of contagion or distrust of government or others. I’m talking about a film which displays extreme isolation and forced social-distancing. Vivarium comes from the inner workings of Lorcan Finnegan’s mind (Without Name) and this well-casted isolation-horror shows Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as two people separated from the world. When Finnegan originally wrote the script and began casting in 2018, how was he to know intense confinement would become the norm?
Now before you dismiss the film completely with your cries of “too soon” and “I want to be happy,” just shut-up for a second and keep one thing in mind while you become trapped with Tom (Eisenberg) and Gemma (Poots) in their endless suburban hell: this film is a romance-horror. Yes, you will observe a couple enduring a mentally-exhausting year of psychological abuse, but the pair finds small ways to flirt and express their love for one another. It is still a bleak romance story, but if these two can find ways to love each other through everything, then the rest of us can make it through a quarantine.
Gemma the school-teacher and Tom the gardener want to take the next step in their relationship and find a new house. The giggly and loving couple, however, cannot decide on their future home, so they inquire from one of the creepiest real estate agents ever seen. Unfazed by the unsettling demeanor of Martin (Jonathan Aris), the house-hunting duo willingly follow the Stepford-wife of real-estate agents into a bland labyrinth of sameness. And even as Tom and Gemma drive away from civilization, the loving couple takes part in an endearing car ride duet which further establishes the bond the two of them share. On top of the world, they pay little attention to the sign which reads “Yonder. You’re home right now. Quality family homes. Forever.” The punctuated addition of “forever” further extends the creepy endlessness stretched out as far as they can see. All the houses look identical, even down to the single pale green hue which covers the interiors as well as the lawns. Not really the ideal location or scenery for the young pair, but they no longer have a choice.
Even if you find Martin unsettling, you will miss him when he is gone. After Tom and Gemma realize they are alone in the sterile environment of Yonder, the two try to make a break for it, but what starts as a humorous exit becomes frustration and then leads to terror. Unable to drive-away or even observe a non-Yonder house, more drastic measures are attempted. However, instead of a route home, the unseen forces of the nightmarish-suburbia gifts the couple a baby with the promise of release if they raise the child. So, no way out, no working phone, or source of entertainment, and now the addition of a third member to the sequestered family. Gemma presents the child as a ‘boy,’ but “Not-a-boy” becomes a more accurate description.
The child actor Senan Jennings plays an amazingly creepy creature as Not-a-boy becomes a constant drain on Tom and Gemma’s already grueling existence as the piercing screams of the child come without warning and rule the lives of the unfortunate pair of captives. Also, when it comes to creepy kid tropes, Jennings checks off quite a few boxes. Within the dull interior of the prison-home, Not-a-boy sits in front of a tv which only plays fragmental images of static. The images hold no interest to the adults, but the small creature now in their care becomes mesmerized by the pointless pictures. Further evidence for including Not-a-boy in the long list of terrifying children comes from how he looks and sounds. Even though quite young, the child dresses like a door-to-door religion peddler and even more disturbing is the strange voice the creature uses. Combining vocal traits of Tom and Gemma (and even Martin) the older sounding voice emanating from the childlike face creates a discordant and off-putting effect. No matter what your thoughts are on the young, after witnessing the physiological destruction the child unleashes, you are going to want to reach out and check on your quarantined friends with children. They might not be doing so well.
The fight to avoid isolation and the revulsion demonstrated by the couple (mostly from Tom) grows with each agonizing day in captivity as they find themselves forced into a life they did not ask for, nor want. Without human interaction, people have no roles or purpose, so the detainees of Yonder grasp for any responsibility which will bring fulfillment. Resorting back to their lives on the outside, Gemma eventually begins attempts at teaching Not-a-boy, and on day 98 of solitude Tom collects his gardening tools from the truck of their defunct car and aims his spade and pick at the fake lawn. Digging a hole fills the time, gives Tom an objective, and puts space between himself and the creature (and, unfortunately, Gemma too). In fact, the more Tom works on the hole, the more distance he puts between himself and everything he knows. As if he is self-isolating himself in an already lonely situation.
Perhaps the premiere of the film came at the wrong time as so many of our lives now revolve around self-isolation. Or perhaps the movie comes at the right time as it creates a realm of social-fiction which shows us where the human mind could go if quarantined for too long and we can be thankful our situation will never be as bad as Tom and Gemma’s. Or maybe the film serves to be a combination of the two options. Escapism becomes a sought-after trait when looking for a distraction from today’s realities but hitting close to home also presents an alternative perspective on life (which some will find troubling). Horror usually borders between the obscure and the familiar, so perhaps Vivarium is simultaneously the perfect film for the times and also the perpetuator of nightmares. Either way, you must excuse me. I got a hole to dig.
Enter Vivarium when it releases on Digital/VOD March 27th from Vertigo Releasing.
By Amylou Ahava
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