Unimaginative housing estates just got even creepier. Young couple Gemma and Tom find themselves trapped in the repetitive house-lined streets of Yonder, with forced domesticity and parenthood thrust upon them within the creepy, supernatural world of Vivarium.
You don’t have to wait long for the skin-crawling creepiness to begin, as the unnerving opening credits set the scene for the overwhelming weirdness of what’s ahead. The actors’ names appear on the screen and share the space with dramatic close-up overhead shots of a large baby bird knocking a small, open-mouthed and vulnerable featherless baby bird out of its nest, then taking its place. This leads this imposter to be fed and raised by the bird who’s actual baby lies dead on the ground; this natural horror is accompanied by an eery and dramatic soundtrack. In the opening scenes of the film, we learn that the baby bird who took over the nest is a cuckoo, as explained by primary school teacher (and the film’s protagonist) Gemma to one of her students who’s saddened by the other baby bird’s corpse on the ground. Gemma kindly reminds the upset student that this is just nature and the way things are, but the little girl rejects this – “I don’t like the way things are… it’s horrible”.
With an opening credit montage like this, you just know that things are going to get weird and more creepiness is not far away, especially when paired with a film title whose definition describes an enclosure or structure that is purposefully created and adapted for the keeping of animals within semi-natural conditions so that they can be kept as pets and/or observed and studied… yikes.
Young, happy couple, Gemma and Tom, are currently in the stressful midst of what seems like never-ending house-hunting. After wandering into the sales office of Yonder – a suburban housing development that in its tagline promises “Quality family homes. Forever.” – they are greeted by the creepy, waxy-faced Martin, the Yonder sales rep. Martin goes on to describe (in his bizarre way) the wonder of Yonder, its tranquillity and practicality, “it has all you’d need and all you’d want”, and perfectly located,“just the right distance”from everything. Despite Martin’s strange behaviour and the suburban-boringness of these totally bland repetitive houses, the couple agree to visit the development.
Vivarium mixes a range of genres in its storytelling, essentially sci-fi/thriller with an element of supernatural horror. The film focuses closely on Gemma and Tom’s change from a young, happy and hopeful couple, to a pair of broken, mentally and physically drained souls, as they slowly deteriorate within their bizarre forced domesticity and isolated child-rearing captivity.The use of overhead, birds-eye shots also emphasises the repetitive hell that is Yonder with no distinguishable markers – it is an inescapable suburban maze. This work reflects the strain of domestic social expectations in modern suburbia and on gender roles in parenthood.
The film’s creepiness is reinforced through its soundtrack, which at points includes out-of-synch chimes paired with gloomy tones and occasional electronic hints that all come together in a seemingly random discordant jumble of sounds. It is used sparingly though, with silence also a clever key component used to create a disturbing sense of isolation, emptiness and aloneness.
Vivarium, unsurprisingly, does not feature a large cast. Imogen Poots as Gemma, alongside Jesse Eisenberg as her partner, Tom, both embody the young couple, ripped from their happy normality and thrown into this suburban nightmare from which there is seemingly no escape. Although the film doesn’t necessarily allow for layered complexity of these characters to be explored – that’s not the point, both actors do well with what they are given. Poots at first plays your every-day, kinda quirky, early 30-something female, but a hidden strength and fierce determination is found in her resilience within the situation. Eisenberg, as well, realistically portrays a man rejecting his current situation and unhealthily feeding into the anger and frustration that comes from the fear he feels.
Although the film has copped a lot of flack from other reviewers regarding its bleak and somewhat suffocating story, for those who enjoy being pushed outside their boundaries by films, especially where they’re left feeling uncomfortable, Vivarium will provide a wonderful viewing experience. If you’re looking for a Hollywood ending, look elsewhere, but if you want to be challenged while being transported to a claustrophobic new world, give this movie a go.
Vivarium is available on Google Play, iTunes, Telstra, Fetch and Umbrella Entertainment Foxtel on Demand from May 6