A surrealist journey down Yonder
I watched the highly intriguing Vivarium with a critic friend of mine who enjoyed it well enough, but commented that it would have worked better as a Black Mirror episode rather than a feature-length film. While I would say that the concept of the film is closer to Rod Serling’s Night Gallery than Black Mirror (the latter has yet to prove itself in my estimation), I have to disagree with the idea that this story is in the wrong medium. As it is, Vivarium proves so taut and tight as a feature, with almost no fat needing to be trimmed and it’s points given adequate time to be made. Relegating Vivarium to the world of episodic television in effect shortchanges, and essentially diminishes, the project’s individuality by classifying it as just another episode number in whatever season a viewer is currently binging. Given how taut and tight the film is, the surrealist sci-fi tale is being brought to genre fans in the exact manner it was meant to be experienced.
In Vivarium, happily unmarried couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are looking for a house to call home. The two decide to explore Yonder, an up-and-coming subdivision in a remote part of town. Upon arriving in Yonder, the pair discover that every house is the same as the last and that the entire place looks like it belongs in a 50s sitcom with its strangely picture perfect trappings. Quickly deciding that Yonder is not for them, Gemma and Tom start to drive away, but inexplicably find themselves continuously back in front of the same house they just left. No matter how many times they try, or what they attempt, the two find they are unable to leave what they soon come to realize is their new home.
Watching Gemma and Tom in their state of happiness and contentment, it’s hard not to be reminded of Barbara and Adam Maitland, the two central protagonists from the Tim Burton classic Beetlejuice. Director Lorcan Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley present a couple very much in love who know and appreciate the other for who they are. Like the aforementioned couple, when they find themselves in a situation they never could have imagined, Gemma and Tom cling to each other for hope, security and familiarity in the face of the unexplainable force holding them captive in suburbia. Eventually the two begin to show understandable signs of strain, especially when their instincts take them down different pathways in terms of dealing with their situation, some of which pitts the two against each other. Yet the couple’s bond remains steadfast throughout even as Gemma and Tom’s love for each other and their individual sanities are tested. A particularly touching scene shows the couple sitting in their car outside the home they’re unable to escape where the pair basks in the vehicle’s interior smell as it takes them back to the life they had before. When Gemma realizes that the radio works and is playing a song they both know quite well, she encourages Tom to dance in the street with her where for a brief moment, their world is just as it should be.
The premise of Vivarium (along with its incredibly well-crafted trailer) is too delicious for fans of sci-fi and surrealism to pass up. If only its underlying themes went beyond their blatant views of traditional values to say something deeper. On the surface, Vivarium is about the madness of suburbia, the feeling of being trapped in a world and a life which dictates the rest of a person’s existence. Tom and Gemma find themselves being punished for daring to want the best of both worlds; an actual home on a piece of land that’s all theirs and the freedom to not tie each other down through the institution of marriage. It’s a freedom that’s enjoyed in today’s world perhaps more than ever before. However the world of Vivarium proclaims that such a mentality where liberation and conventionality (when it comes to the home, anyway) is the antithesis to what actually helps to further society. The film uses Gemma and Tom to show that there is a natural system which has proven not just effective, but vital, to the continuation of society which they must learn to embrace, or else perish. If the couple won’t willingly embrace the promise and importance of tranquil matrimony in perfect suburbia, they will simply have to be forced to do so.
Poots and Eisenberg have always been a pair of screen performers who have never once batted an eye at the kind of left-of-center film project many in the industry would label as “brave,” tackling virtually every kind of genre and character possible. Here, the two play off each other believably as a couple in love. The two actors invest enough of themselves as to ensure that you believe in Gemma and Tom’s relationship as much as they do. When the gravity of their situation sets in, Eisenberg and Poots each exude their own special brand of madness which keeps the movie feeling fresh and the audience even more intrigued. In the end, their work here is a highlight for both of the actors.
A movie squarely in the vein of Serling would almost certainly have to deliver on the visuals, which Vivarium does. The robin’s egg blue house, the eerie, yet strangely serene sunsets and the dreamy clouds are all wondrous sights that are all exquisitely juxtaposed with the maddening effect they tend to give off. In spite of how involving Vivarium is, I can’t help but feel like I wanted more from it. I’m not necessarily talking about an explanation, per say, but rather an exploration. A late in the game turn by Gemma takes the film to a whole other level before eventually stopping. The thought of the unrealized possibilities of what could have transpired from this very well-executed plot development can’t help but bring sadness to those who have found themselves captivated by Vivarium all the way through. However this is less of a complaint, and more of a feeling of admiration for the world this film has created and the intrigue it possesses.