‘Vivarium’: Film Review | Cannes 2019

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg play a young couple caught in a nightmarish suburban twilight zone in Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi suspense thriller ‘Vivarium’.

The spooky blandness of suburbia has proved extraordinarily fruitful terrain for horror and sci-fi cinema over the decades, from The Stepford Wives and Poltergeist to The Truman Show and Get Out. With his second feature, Vivarium, Irish director Lorcan Finnegan reimagines the suburbs as a dystopian blend of prison camp and incubation unit, where human couples are lured to act as surrogate parents to changeling children born somewhere deep inside the Twilight Zone.

Shot in Ireland and Belgium, Vivarium feels at times like an extended episode of the hit Netflix series Black Mirror. It is a superior genre piece at heart, but elevated by its high-caliber leads, Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, plus a script rich in political and cultural resonance. There are echoes of cult sci-fi authors like J.G. Ballard and John Wyndham here, plus eye-pleasing nods to the surrealist art of René Magritte and M.C. Escher. After its world premiere in the Critics’ Week section in Cannes, this Irish-Danish-Belgian co-production will likely find an eager ready-made audience at genre-friendly festivals and beyond, its commercial crossover potential boosted by a starry cast.

The Bottom Line

Hauntingly weird tale of darkness on the edge of town.

Teacher Gemma (Poots) and handyman Tom (Eisenberg) are a young couple with vague plans of buying a home together in an unnamed European city. During a casual visit to a comically bizarre property agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), they agree to visit a new suburban housing development called Yonder on the edge of the city, its location suspiciously vague: “near enough and far enough.” The location itself is stranger still, a life-size toytown of endless identical family homes, all painted in the same pristine green, stretching out forever under a perfect sunny sky peppered with candy-floss Simpsons clouds. We are not in Kansas any more, Toto.

Mysteriously deserted by Martin in the middle of their visit to Yonder, Gemma and Tom slowly come to realize they’ve been lured to this nightmarish non-place for sinister ulterior motives. As the dimensions of the development expand and warp around them, all attempts to escape bring them back to the same house, again and again. Phone and internet connections are dead. All the other homes appear to be empty.

When food and medicine supplies begin arriving from nowhere, the couple grudgingly make themselves at home in their luxurious prison. Then a baby boy appears, human in form but alien in behavior, growing and learning at great speed as he perfects his freakish ability to mimic his hosts. As Gemma fights against her growing maternal urges, Tom becomes increasingly remote and obsessive, digging deep into the synthetic soil of Yonder in search of answers. Behind the outwardly banal picture of family normality, a brutal fight for survival is taking shape.

Vivarium is a smart and gripping yarn, although Eisenberg feels underused and possibly miscast as a rugged outdoor type who spends much of the film engaged in hard manual labor. Poots gives a more rounded performance, with a broader emotional range. Irish child actor Senan Jennings, playing the younger incarnation of the boy, also finds a convincing balance between cherubic and demonic. Finnegan and his team amplify the boy’s otherness by heavily processing his voice, overlaying it with lines by the other actors when he performs his uncanny mimicry act.

Although Vivarium maintains a gentle chokehold of suspense from end to end, a few more twists and layers might have squeezed more juice from its richly weird premise. Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley could certainly have milked more horror mileage from the growing sense of mortal dread that develops between the unhappy couple and their creepy cuckoo son. Likewise the screenplay never fully exploits its implied satirical take on the soul-destroying job of raising young children, or its timely commentary on the stressful financial pressures facing first-time homebuyers, a huge problem in most of Europe, and one that Finnegan explicitly highlights in his Cannes press notes.

But even if it misses a few beats, Vivarium remains a nerve-jangling, finely crafted thriller. More dark fairy tale than straight sci-fi puzzle, it never reveals all its secrets but still concludes on a satisfying note of symmetry. On the craft side, major credit is due to production designer Philip Murphy for creating such a striking suburban hellscape, as well as composer and sound designer Kristian Eidnes Andersen for maximizing the sonic unease. Vintage Jamaican ska music also serves as an agreeably sunny motif, its joyous energy increasingly ironic as the story darkens.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Fantastic Films, Frakas Productions, Ping Pong Film
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwicke, Jonathan Aris
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Producers: John McDonnell, Brendan McCarthy
Cinematographer: MacGregor
Editor: Tony Cranstoun
Production designer: Philip Murphy
Composer: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Sales company: XYZ Films, Los Angeles

98 minutes