What’s one to do in unprecedented times once self-quarantining is in place and groceries have been bought and stocked in kitchen pantries? Twister and Monopoly will only take you so far and there are only so many Tequila Sunrises one can down in fits of self-despair; to quote the great film Cool Hand Luke, “No man can eat fifty eggs.”
With the above in mind, my Better Half and I settled in yesterday evening for an impromptu screening of director Lorcan Finnegan’s One Step Beyond/Twilight Zone-like thriller, Vivarium on our tiny bedroom television set. That was not the original plan for my wife and I, however. Upon seeing the theatrical trailer for this suburban dream turned to pot film, we instantly put it on our Go See list and made a mental note to keep an eye on area theaters so that we could trek out to view it.
What a difference a month makes: A little thing clinically titled the Coronavirus jettisoned life as we all now know it and, instead of braving lines at the local multiplex in the icy Midwest, we suddenly found ourselves presented with the option of checking Vivarium out via our Amazon Prime service, eschewing the suddenly empty and dreaded movie theaters. These are the perks for cinephiles whose movies of choice are quirkier and much lower budgeted than, say for example, Black Widow or Fast and Furious 9. These two aforementioned tent-poles, by virtue of their umpteen million dollar budget and uber-expensive ad campaigns, have fallen into cinematic limbo for the time being. To put it mildly, studios such as Disney and Warner Brothers have waaay too much money tied up into these summer spectacles to take the financial loss that releasing them via direct streaming and Blu-ray and DVD would entail. Smaller films like Vivarium, the types of flicks whose overall budgets add up to a day’s worth of catering on an Avengers movie, have a lot more wiggle room for what I’m now calling “The Great Filmatic dump of 2020.” And so it is that we found ourselves watching and mostly enjoying a most unusual film.
The setup is simple enough: A young couple looking to buy a house wind up trapped in a sort of suburban nightmare courtesy of a mysterious realtor named Martin. The housing development – called Yonder – offers the couple (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) sights familiar to anyone who has ever driven by one of the many sprawling subdivisions that painfully litter our world: Excruciatingly manicured lawns, streets that seem almost interchangeable with one another and an overall homogenization that is part and parcel with these suburban wet-dreams. After looking over a house with a street number of nine ascribed to it, the two twentysomethings attempt to drive out of Yonder but keep winding up back in front of good ol’ house number nine. Martin has long since vamoosed, vanishing as mysteriously as he arrived. In Martin’s place is dropped off a box of necessary supplies to while away the time in their domesticated prison…and an infant who ages far faster than any mere child. In short, Eisenberg and Poots wind up in the Twilight Zone.
This is a concept that might have played better on paper versus the final execution on screen which, from time to time, seems a little too drawn out. Watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder what a wordsmith like Rod Serling would have done with this same story crunched down into a thirty minute running time versus the hour and a half of Vivarium. Some concepts lend themselves more ably to theatrical running times versus others. To his good credit, Finnegan, working from a screenplay by scribe Garret Shanley from a story he devised with the scripter, attempts to keep the Scooby-Doo explanations for what exactly is going on to a minimum. Here is a director smart enough to realize that some things are best left unexplained and that sometimes in the desire to spoon feed and telegraph to an audience every single little detail of backstory and resolution real and visceral impact is ultimately lost (looking at you here 2004’s The Forgotten). The director instead subtly provides viewers with a variety of vague and possible explanations, none of them really filled in and colored: Is this an alien experiment from beyond the stars? A government program on acid? A metaphor for the 2008 real estate fallout?
One thing is quite certain: Vivarium is not about the Coronavirus, although it is all but impossible to not draw comparisons in the world we currently find ourselves in. The couple in the film is isolated from everyone in the world and every moment of their waking life revolves around just getting through one more day as they furtively search for a way out of their lab-like maze. This hits home in ways that the filmmakers and actors could never have contemplated just one year ago, making this movie especially timely.
Jesse Eisenberg delivers a solid performance and it’s nice to see him in a challenging project like Vivarium after a brief interlude in the world of comic book movies. The real surprise in all of this is the transcendent work of Imogen Poots. If you only recall Ms. Poots from films such as the ill-advised Fright Night remake of some years back, then her turn in this film will be an eye-opener; she steals every scene she’s in (which is, well, almost the entire film. A two person film has its benefits.), projecting a steadfast gravity. This is a star-making turn of a real actor.
Vivarium is an intriguing film that arrives at just the right time in a world where things now more than ever resemble the fictional housing development of Yonder.