Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings, Éanna Hardwicke
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
“A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses” (IMDb).
»Currently streaming on Amazon Prime«
What to Expect
A love letter to the rocksteady genre
Trapped into parenthood
Why You Should Watch It
This film falls somewhere between a mix of Beetlejuice and Eraserhead, but without the quirkiness of Burton nor the outrageousness of Lynch. And the longer you stare, the more the similarities come to light: a couple unable to leave their home, a unique color palette, a horrified resistance to parenting, and white people dancing to Afro Caribbean–inspired music.
Finnegan even leans into David Lynch’s penchant for “figure it out yourself” exposition—providing a few clues to the sci-fi aspect of the plot but never fully explaining everything. These kinds of non-expositions allow the viewer to choose their own interpretation of a film, which, personally, are some of my favorite types of movies.
A young couple becomes trapped alone in suburbia and are given a newborn baby with the directive: “Raise the child and be released.” The child is odd, he grows incredibly fast and has freaky frog-like vocal sacs in his neck. He also imitates their mannerisms and recites their conversations verbatim back to them. Resenting the child, unable to escape, the couple’s relationship becomes strained. Their prison has no weather, food has no taste, and they have no one but themselves to keep company. Eventually, they both die, seemingly from exhaustion. The boy, presumably an alien, buries their bodies in the front yard and drives out of the neighborhood, ready to bait the next victims.
Vivarium may not be overtly sci-fi, but it does tackle two scientific concepts: observational study and brood parasitism. Cuckoos are common examples of brood parasites, and the film introduces the audience to the concept in its opening scene: a cuckoo egg is laid in another bird’s nest; the cuckoo hatches, instinctually pushes out the other eggs, then screams for the host mother to feed it. The unsettling score, coupled with the disturbing appearance of naked baby birds, and the juvenile cuckoo growing far larger than its adoptive parents, makes the scene feel monstrous. When Tom (Eisenberg) and Gemma (Poots) become trapped in their own brood parasite scenario, it holds the same unsettling feeling. But as Gemma explains to one of her students, “That’s nature. That’s the way things are.”
In the past, zoologists would typically only have a dead specimen to examine if they wanted to learn about an animal. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the scientific community began observing and experimenting on live animals in large, enclosed environments, known as vivaria (singular: vivarium). They were like zoos, but for research. The alien baby that Tom and Gemma are forced to raise needs them in part because it learns human language and behavior through them. The trippy television show and cryptic textbook are how the boy (Jennings; Hardwicke) learns about his own kind, but it’s Tom and Gemma who teach him how to mimic humans.
The movie’s title also suggests that many aliens are studying the couple, the way scientists might look in on the subjects in their vivarium—or even how certain species of cuckoo will often check on the host nest to ensure their egg is being cared for. Some of these cuckoos will destroy the host clutch if their egg or hatchling is rejected. If the boy had died, what would Tom and Gemma’s punishment have been?
Here’s the few things we’re able to garner from the aliens:
- We know they are powerful enough to concoct a prison for humans, and keep different “parents” captured in these strange pocket dimensions that Gemma discovers at the end of the movie.
- From a quick glance at the boy’s textbook, we can see that the aliens take human form through some weird fertilization process.
- The sounds and vocal sacs on the boy’s neck imply the aliens are frog-like creatures.
- The aliens age far more rapidly than humans do. Only about a year has passed for Tom and Gemma, but the boy has grown from an infant to a young adult. When he leaves Yonder (the vivarium), Martin (Aris) has aged significantly and died, just in time for the boy to replace him.
Beyond that, we don’t know much. Are the aliens staging an invasion of Earth? Is the role of Yonder and Martin just how alien young are raised? If the cuckoo symbolism is any clue, the answer is more of the latter.
Green and yellow are the primary colors seen in Vivarium, and color blocking is used in other instances, such as the pink bathroom, blue rooms, and the boy’s monochromatic dress clothes. Green appears to represent monotony, as it is the color of all the homes in Yonder. Yellow seems to represent rebellion, as we see it reflected on the characters.
The couples are never provided clothes, so we see Gemma wearing the same blue-green outfit for most of the movie. However, Tom originally is wearing a gray shirt (with a mustard-colored jacket) that becomes yellowed after he starts digging in the yellow dirt. The digging is Tom’s hope for escape, but also his rebellion against parenting and his relationship. (Gemma is the one who tries to stay connected with Tom and keep things light in spite of their situation, yet Tom remains distant.) After Tom works himself to death, Gemma, angry and grief stricken, is wearing a yellow shirt as she attacks the boy.
Parenthood & Suburban Life
It can be argued that Vivarium is one big metaphor for the anxiety of parenthood and ennui of suburban life. Both characters are very resistant to picking up parenting, with Tom doing all he can to remove himself from the situation, even becoming violent with the boy at one point. As a kindergarten teacher, Gemma can’t bring herself to abandon a child, but does everything she can to insist she is not the boy’s mother, even at the brink of death.
The boy screams when he’s not being cared for, and mimics everything they say and do, even when he doesn’t appear to be able to see their mannerisms. This is inline with human children mimicking adults, and of course screaming for seemingly no reason.
The boy’s childhood passes very quickly, and over the short period of time we see Tom lose his love for Gemma, only appreciating it when he’s dying. This could be a representation of how fast children seem to grow up, and maybe even commentary on losing passion in a relationship after having kids.
Suburban ennui is also reflected in the “easy life” Tom and Gemma lived—their nice home, perfect weather, and never having to buy groceries—yet they never appreciated the comforts. The directive from the aliens also appears appropriate in this metaphor: that their “release” after raising the child did not mean freedom or a return to their old life, but death.