Courtesy of Saban Films
At times stuck inside its own headspace, and trying to be like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone” - director Lorcan Finnegan’s ambitious, but entirely offbeat “Vivarium” runs circles around its premise, literally.
But what works for “The Twilight Zone” (and I’m not talking about the recent, Jordan Peele produced revival) is how quick and snappy they were. Generally, the episodes were 23 minutes, set up the premise, gave us a hook, and got out before the material runs thin. In “Vivarium” - which clocks in at 98 minutes - there are about two generally intriguing troupes before stalling at the finish line.
Clearly a lot of heart and creative juices flowed through this film, the story of young couple Gemma and Tom (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) who find themselves trapped in a purgatorial state, which is ironic considering our entire country is seemingly on lockdown. While not much is known about their relationship, we do know Gemma and Tom aren’t married but are serious enough to be looking for a house together. On a whim they discover a “Stepford Wives” suburbia dubbed Yonder Maine, where all the houses look identical: they all have the same lime green paint job, picket white fences, and two shrubs on the front porch. It takes the couple about ten seconds to realize the place is not for them and decide to leave, except, they can’t.
After numerous attempts and countless turns, they always end up at bungaloo #9 and can’t pinpoint their location and cell phone services are extinct. The next morning - after their car runs out of gas - a care package arrives full of individually packed food products and toiletries; then another box arrives containing a small child with a cryptic note: “Raise the child, and you’ll be freed.”
From there, Finnergan tries to explore the world he’s created, though, it leaves you with more questions than answers. Why does this child grow at an accelerated rate? Who are these people watching over Gemma and Tom like a science experiment? The powers that be don’t want them dead, but what are they trying to tap into? There’s a version of this film where it plays harder into those uncertain science fiction elements, especially this child who runs around impersonating others in annoying and rapid succession (the voice, it should be noted, sounds like a bad english dub over a chinese film). To an extent, and to Finnergan’s credit, the creepy and atmospheric tension works a number on the senses (you’ll never forget the conga line of identical houses that look recycled from the live action remake of “The Cat in the Hat”) however, the script could try harder to embrace its campiness.
Sadly, “Vivarium” can’t stick on one idea for too long before jumping to the next bit. Tom becomes obsessed with digging into the ground and Gemma is harnessing her maternal extincts, but there are too many ideas thrown on the wall and not enough of them stick to fully satisfy the character arcs being set up. Poots is probably the strongest of the leads because she’s got the most to grapple with (a nagging child and stir crazy boyfriend) while Eisenberg mostly runs on autopilot. “Vivarium” is a unique exercise in original storytelling, but it seems overcooked and will likely have audiences feeling, among other things, defeated.
VIVARIUM will be available to rent from numerous video on demand and streaming platforms starting Friday March 27th.