Vivarium review – promising but incomplete domestic dystopia

A couple’s happy house hunting turns into a nightmarish trap in Lorcan Finnegan’s pristine distortion of the housing crisis

All messed up and nowhere to go: welcome to Yonder, a cereal box neighbourhood that has trapped young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) in its neverending clutches. The pair were hunting for their first home together and ended up in a maze of a home estate, impossible to escape from.

The resemblances with every dystopian bottle Black Mirror episode are almost overwhelming. Two healthy, attractive young things take a chance on a stranger – uncanny, sure, but harmless, right? – and find themselves in some kind of mousetrap. After visiting house number 9, Gemma and Tom try to leave, but every road takes them back to where they started.

It’s a perversely curious premise, a lab experiment of a relationship drama. Will they first turn against each other, or dig themselves into the ground? How do you cry for salvation when you don’t even know where the danger is coming from? But the problem with Vivarium is that every question, as urgent and pertinent as it is, adds itself to the pile – by the end of the story, there’s little more satisfaction and still the sense, 98 minutes later, that this has all made for an interesting 10 minutes of exposition, waiting for something greater.

Lorcan Finnegan’s pristine nightmare is full of promise, and that’s where it fails. With every deeper threat, every eerie wrong turn, there’s an unspoken feeling: “Wait for it, this will make sense later,” you think, only for no further sense to emerge. Vivarium offers a hall of mirrors, a trip down the rabbit hole and straight into hell. While fans of challenging, unsettling sci-fi might flock to this initially, what do you do when you’re just left stuck there?

At least the viewer is in sturdy company. Eisenberg proves himself once more as a master of neurosis, operating in unflappable stares and jittery body language to communicate the impossible frustration of losing control of your life. He’s well-matched by Poots, as the couple might not have immense romantic chemistry, but their dynamic here works better as two opposites, a pair of magnets vaguely circling and remaining drawn to one another, without ever fully clicking. Her wide eyes and sensitive locution aim for tenderness in a world turned sterile.

But Gemma’s tenderness is quickly taken advantage of. The search for a new home turns into a meditation on how to build a family, which then asks how to define motherhood. It’s an incomplete approximation, one that drops a baby in a cardboard box outside number 9’s front door in silence. A printed instruction says to raise the child and Gemma and Tom will be released, but then, as the film becomes punctuated by the child’s three stages of life (baby, young boy, young man), no further dots are connected as to how house-hunting turned into parenting, when this parenting challenge will set them free, and what exactly this baby/child/man is – one thing’s for sure, he certainly isn’t human.

It’s ambitious but ultimately clumsy existentialism, stretching elastic hypotheses about all that a new home can entail, both idyllic and nightmarish, and then animating sci-fi fantasy hallucinations for no good reason, before jumping to conclusions that ultimately just fall into the holes this very logic tried to set up.

If Vivarium was a house, it would be one made of cards. Paper walls, maybe a cardboard roof. It’s built with good-looking and sound-minded intentions, but cannot weather the smallest puff of wind. Everything crumbles in frustration. All that remains is rubble, and a fog of thick, impenetrable smoke, where a bright new future should have been.

Vivarium is available on VOD platforms from 27 March.

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