Film: Vivarium

Vivarium (2019) isn’t a film that generates high expectations, but ultimately shapes up into something memorable, a tale of science fictional horror with an existentialist bent. Gemma (Imogen Poots) is a grade school teacher in England who’s seeking a new home with her American boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a groundskeeper. After work one day, the two of them visit the offices of a real estate development for a neighborhood called Yonder. There, a bizarre real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) delivers a stilted, artificial pitch for the development. Politely, the young couple follows Martin out to the strange suburb to see a house. But when Martin abandons them there, they can’t find their way out of the neighborhood. Their new forever home truly is forever.

In its earliest stretches, the film unfolds with the predictability of a Twilight Zone episode, with Poots and Eisenberg bringing an amused charm to their interplay with an oddball Aris. It’s tempting to get impatient with the first half hour or so, as Gemma and Tom spend more time learning the details of their metaphysical imprisonment than a seasoned viewer will need. But it’s worth hanging around for the later acts, when the story lurches strangely into a new mode, adding unsettling and unexpected angles. At times, existential allegory threatens to overwhelm the surface logistics, but in the end the film maintains a decent balance between the two, working well on both levels. It’s still something of a B movie, a small-scale SFnal chiller with a focused message. But Poots and Eisenberg deliver committed performances, the creepy aesthetic is well executed, and it leverages a simple premise to incisive effect without overstaying its welcome. Maybe it’s more of a B+ movie.

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