Science fiction and mystery have a lot in common, but a hybrid between the two needs to do three things to work properly.
First, it needs to put forth a sufficiently intriguing problem or puzzle to be solved. Second, it must set rules of logical consistency that it adheres to throughout, while at the same time setting us up for the unexpected.
Finally, and most importantly, it must give us characters who share our interest in the problem and have the appropriate skills to solve it, or at least the willingness to learn.
“Vivarium” is a science fiction mystery that’s only halfway there.
— Deadline Hollywood (@DEADLINE) May 15, 2019
The basic premise is an intriguing if overly familiar one, and it establishes clear rules in its fictional universe. Unfortunately, once the premise and rules are set, it becomes predictable and frustration sets in as we realize the movie is just spinning its wheels.
Worse yet, it casts two excellent, intelligent actors as characters who lack the basic motivations of curiosity and determination necessary to both solve the mystery and maintain our involvement.
It’s not an awful film and certainly not a boring one, but considering all the smart and talented people involved, it’s a disappointment.
Directed by Lorcan Finnegan, “Vivarium” is a co-production between the United States, Ireland, Denmark and Belgium, quite a pedigree, to say the least.
An elementary school teacher named Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a school groundskeeper, want to buy a home together. Unfortunately, they decide to go to the weirdest travel agent around (Jonathan Aris) who leads them out to a supposed new suburban development called Yonder…and promptly abandons them.
Yonder sure is a strange place, looking more like a life-size Playmobil set than anything else. Imagine a series of identical green houses on carefully manicured lawns.
Gemma and Tom soon find that no matter how hard they try to remember the way they got there, they can’t leave, always winding up in front of the same house, address simply “9.”
They realize they have no choice but to set up residence in House No. 9 until they can get help or figure out a plan of escape. Soon a care package is mysteriously left at the front door, containing food (edible but tasteless), water, and … a baby.
Given clear instructions they will only be allowed to leave if they take care of the child, they dutifully do so. It turns out the child has an accelerated growth rate, maturing one year for every 10 days and poses both a mystery and challenge of its own.
“Vivarium” opens with beautifully filmed images of nature at its coldest, at least from our human perspective. A cuckoo’s egg hatches in a nest. The newborn bird pushes out the eggs and helpless nestlings already there and is fed by its “stepparents” until it dwarfs the nest itself.
It’s a spellbinding sequence that ultimately works to the film’s detriment. It becomes obvious very quickly we’re supposed to see a direct analogy with the lead characters’ situation. We also realize that there will be no surprises as the story unfolds.
Consequently, while we may watch with interest, we never feel fully involved. The movie does have a weird climatic sequence that’s like a cross between “Mullholland Drive” and “Invaders From Mars” (1953), but it’s too little, too late, and is just a road stop on the way to a predictable conclusion.
Another reason for our lack of involvement is the failure to get Gemma and Tom involved in the story. They are well characterized in the opening scenes, and then, to our frustration, don’t change or respond to their situation in a plausible way.
This happens early on, as first they don’t realize this bizarre agent is obviously not to be trusted. Later, they don’t make the connection between him and the child, even though they look and dress alike and have similar behavioral tics.
— Lorcan Finnegan (@lorcanfinnegan) May 16, 2019
The script also makes the mistake of skipping over three months in the story line (between the arrival of the baby and its growth into a nine-year old), leaving us wondering just what they did during that whole time.
Just how did they react to the accelerated growth rate of this child? Did they have the mixture of fear and curiosity we’d expect?
They seem resigned to their unusual routine, which is not just a defeatist approach on their part, but on part of the script as well. The leads are assigned professions that should be useful in their situation, but once again the script lets down their potential.
Far too late in the movie, Gemma uses her training as a teacher to try to establish mutual understanding with the child through role playing, when logically she would have tried to do so from the very beginning.
We start to get interested in the story again once she does so, but unfortunately the movie once again moves away from the potentially fascinating problem-solving aspect of the mystery to focus on sheer weirdness.
Eisenberg’s Tom is even more frustrating, as his profession is used as a mere plot convenience, so he can bring a shovel and spend most of the second half digging a hole in the ground. Why cast one of our most thoughtful actors in a role that doesn’t give him a chance to think? Wouldn’t his character at least display some curiosity about the strange landscape and topiary of this place?
I would have loved to have seen him go off and explore this bizarre new environment, but once again, the script doesn’t give him a chance. The strange child is also a problem in of itself. First of all, the mystery of this little boy is a lot less interesting than that of Yonder itself. That wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t constantly torment us as much as he does the adult leads.
He’s like a cross between “Young Sheldon” and Hugo from “The Tin Drum,” complete with a similar ear-splitting screech. Were it not for the fact that taking care of the child was their only chance of escape, it would be hard to understand why the protagonists simply don’t wring the little brat’s neck.
I openly admit that some of my problems with the movie likely stem from being a longtime science fiction fan. While most viewers will likely be reminded of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (a scene where a cigarette butt sets artificial grass aflame seems borrowed from it), I was also reminded of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic short stories “They” and “Goldfish Bowl” and Philip K. Dick’s novel “Time Out of Joint.”
My own over-familiarity with the genre may have hindered my enjoyment, but that may not be the case for everyone. I still found myself wishing that the filmmakers would have tried adapting one of the aforementioned stories instead of expending their creative energies on an unsatisfying rehash of well-worn premises.
A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.