Fantastic Fest 2019: Vivarium
The spirit of The Twilight Zone is as strong today as it was 60 years ago. With anthology series like Black Mirror and the Twilight Zone reboot itself, diving into socio-political topics via sci-fi/horror premises still packs a punch. The concept of Vivarium starts at a similar place as those classic Rod Serling episodes, with a spark of an idea stemming from a very real place. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a dating couple who go house hunting and end up at a peculiar realtor company. They’re lead to a home tour by the very odd Martin (Jonathan Aris), then, when Gemma and Tom find themselves alone in the house for a minute, they see Martin has vanished and they’re trapped in the house and neighborhood they’ve been taken to. Who or what has led them there and why? We find out eventually as the screws turn in this effective, inventive thriller.
The subtext is presented as text right away in Vivarium: in the opening credits we see a baby cuckoo bird kicking out other baby birds and eggs in a nest. Gemma, a school teacher, explains to the young student who find the dead baby birds that nature has run its course because, well, it’s nature. Later, once Gemma and Tom are trapped in the neighborhood—a seemingly mobius strip maze which you can’t walk or drive out of—they’re given boxes of supplies that come out of nowhere. And, once they begrudgingly settle into their ‘home’ they receive one box that contains a live baby, with instructions on the box that says, “Raise the child and be set free.” You see, the baby is like the cuckoo bird, you get it, you get it...
Gemma and Tom try to adapt to family life, but it’s not at all normal, as the baby grows up quickly and doesn’t sound or act like a regular human child. The boy is clearly alien… or is it? They’re not sure and they fight their darkest urges when faced with this new challenge; do they raise it and possibly be set free from this purgatory, or do they get rid of it (and by ‘get rid of it,’ you know exactly what I mean)?
Vivarium’s initial idea runs colder and colder as the film moves forward; there’s a dip towards the end that feels like the film is spinning its wheels, spreading the mystery thin. What cataputles the film are the performances of Poots and Eisenberg (who both also starred in another indie film that tackled another set of social issues this past year: The Art of Self-Defense). Poots’ character here struggles with being a mother figure to the boy, with a protective instinct kicking in. While Eisenberg’s Tom goes the other route, abandoning the family unit and attempting to break free from their prison, posturing with his fragile male ego. The emotional beats are heavy, going from levels of horror to psychological trauma. If you’re a fan of either actor, Poots and Eisenberg, you’ll get some exceptional work from two arguably underrated performers. They are the highlights of the film, which does plenty with its trippy visuals and direction, but only manages to make it to the finish line, successfully, thanks to its two leads, who inhabit and carry the entirety of the film.
Vivarium at its best does what a lot of classic Twilight Zone episodes do: it makes you think about societal norms through a horror/sci-fi lens. It’s perhaps too on the nose, yes, but the film is ultimately effective because of how Poots and Eisenberg handle the material, making for an effective chilling look at the traditional family unit.