Review: ‘Vivarium’ (metaphor as substance abuse)

A nihilistic high-concept piece that can’t resist spelling out every reveal.

After finishing teaching grade school classes for the day, Gemma (Imogen Poots) meets up with her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) before stopping at a local realty office. An unblinking clerk named Martin (Jonathan Aris) greets the couple and offers to show them one of the homes nearby; they reluctantly agree despite having zero purchase intentions. After viewing the cookie-cutter sterile dwelling Martin refers to as “a forever home,” the couple lose track of both their agent and their surroundings, discovering to their dismay that all paths out lead back to house Number 9. Inexplicably trapped, Gemma and Tom are given a directive to earn their release… and all it will cost them is everything.

If the above description seems absurdly thin and distractedly distant, welcome to the world of Vivarium. The trailers suggest plenty of thought went into the production design, from a setting reminiscent of The Sims to NASA-inspired product packaging suitable for travel to any time or place. Fans of “Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” and “Black Mirror” will immediately sense the possibilities, but with so few characters and such a limited location, are there likewise too few final reveals to justify the running time?

Both the title and the opening scene are probably too much information going in. From point-of-view problems to what’s-the-point issues, this has all the earmarks of an awards-season film full of quirkiness and nihilism, yet it can’t seem to settle on any particular point; in fact, it tries to embrace them all. This is made clear during a third-act montage that explores every other possibility the onscreen characters didn’t choose, meant as futility for the characters but equally applied to viewers. Even when applied to horror genre tropes, the totality misses the mark of anything coherent and settles upon weird for the sake of being weird.

Issues become obvious when you think about where it went as opposed to how it started. Even if you give into the Twilight Zone possibility that reality is being manipulated, that montage of other possibilities calls out the inherent problem: the metaphor doesn’t work. It feels like a cynic’s POV of being trapped in a loveless marriage due to being saddled with a kid out of wedlock… and the excuse that an outside force somehow manipulated it into being instead of taking responsibility for it. Never mind that the film opens with a bird behavioral reference before presenting an insect-like antagonist, yet another random thing that never follows through.

Beautifully produced and expertly acted, the point was either lost at the script phase or muddled in editing with multiple takes resulting in the least effective choices. So many great ideas are set up while every single punch is pulled. Perhaps if the antagonist was presented as the protagonist vs. a pesky yuppie couple, the shift in focus would play better into the title. One must wonder if the filmmakers understood the literal hole to nowhere Tom is digging sums up their entire movie.

Vivarium is rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity, and utter failure in securing the title Parasite.

One skull recommendation out of four

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