Vivarium is Saying Something Big But What?

Vivarium is Saying Something Big But What? Because this movie is so good, and so strange, that we have to figure out what it is that it might just be saying. Is it about aliens? Is it ennui with life? Is it societal expectations? What is happening here?
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<radiovoice>Welcome to THiNC.! The place where we watch crazy mindjob movies and talk about them til we go blue in the face.</radiovoice> Hahahaha. The other day we had a blast talking about Platform, and today??? Today I am bringing you the move Vivarium. Vivarium is the latest mindjob film that is helmed by Jessie Eisenberg (The End of the Tour, Social Network, Zombie Land, etc., etc.) and Imogen Poots (Please go see her in Green Room). You know, the duo who brought you The Art of Self Defense! Have you never heard of Vivarium? How do you describe this thing? Basically, a young couple, looking for a home, bump into a weird real estate agency that takes our couple to a really weird cookie cutter neighborhood. And when they are trapped there things only get stranger and stranger. And we know that Vivarium is saying something big but what?

If you dig minimalist, strange, closed box movies, pass on this trailer. But for the other 99% of the population, you really ought to watch this before you decide whether you should go further. Because this movie is 100% not for everyone. I mean, the fact that I thought it was mindjob gold should give you pause enough!

But first! What, the HECK, is a vivarium??!? Never fear, I got you…

That definition actually is formative. I sort of knew it was like a terrarium. But that last bit of the definition is fantastic – “simulating their natural environment, as for research.” But we will get to that. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, go away. I mean, no offense, but leave. You can watch the movie Vivarium right here or here. Seriously, what else do you have going on in the middle of a global pandemic? Just go watch it. Now, for the rest of you, let’s quickly do a walk through of this thing, and then talk about what the heck might be going on here.

Vivarium Movie Walkthrough

The movie opens with a shot of a Cuckoo bird growing up in another family’s nest. Growing way bigger than the mother or father. Knocking out the other birds and eggs from the nest. Huh. What a weird way to start a pleasant movie about a couple starting a new home. Whatever could it mean??!?

After establishing Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Eisenberg) in a young, growing, and loving relationship, we learn that the happy couple is beginning to look for a home to settle down. Their search takes them to a real estate office, housed by a very weird agent named Martin. He takes them on a tour of a suburban neighborhood, called Yonder, that is made of cookie cutter green homes. Martin shows them around house #9, and we make special note of the blue baby room…you know, for a boy. Eventually Martin completely disappears, and Tom & Gemma get hopelessly lost trying to leave the disorienting community. When the car runs out of gas, they eventually retreat back to #9 to sleep.

After continuing their failures at escaping the house and the neighborhood, Tom sets the house aflame, only to have it miraculously restored. Food is provided each day in a box filled with shrink wrapped and tasteless morsels. Eventually, a box arrives in front of the house with a child in it. A note attached is their first communication since arriving here, “Raise the child and be released.” And in the span of 98 days, the child has exploded in growth to that of normal 7 year-old child. (Now, when the child jumps in age to a man, let’s just assume he grows to 21? I went looking for the actor, Eanna Hardwicke’s age, but came up with snake eyes. If anyone knows how old he is, it’d be helpful as a general rule of thumb for how much time has lapsed. But let’s use 21 for now. Which would mean that Tom and Gemma have been there something like 9 months? Let’s call their entire time in this little Vivarium a year on the outside.)

Tom becomes utterly obsessed when he discovers that the ground beneath their home is made of a weird clay like consistency. He begins digging, and doesn’t stop. So much so that it begins to make Tom sick. Simultaneously, the boy alternates between mimicking his “parents” or watching the weird patterns on the television. Meanwhile Gemma, sans Tom, becomes obsessed with keeping the child alive, but also at a remove. After the boy returns from a day long absence, Gemma gets him mimic the people he was just with. He ends up screaming as huge bubbles on his throat form and bloat.

Jump forward plus or minus a total year, and the boy has grown into an adult. Earlier, Tom had tried to leave the boy in the car to die, but Gemma saved him. And now, she wishes that she had let him kill it. But now they both know he is too strong, and they are too sick to defend themselves from him. Even though Tom is very sick, he continues to dig. And towards the bottom of the hole he finds a body in a body bag. Tom is now very very sick, and ultimately dies. But just before he dies, he tells Gemma that he was always home when he was with her.

When Gemma begs the boy to help Tom, he gives her a body bag for him. Gemma chases the boy and follows him under a curb. It’s a place between dimensions that has separated all the people trapped in the neighborhood from one another. Does that make sense? Parallel universe partitions or something that keep those that are trapped from seeing one another. And now Gemma watches as a woman is sitting at a dining room table, crying. Then another house, where the couple are making love. Another where she lands in the shower, and the father of that home has recently committed suicide. All of these forced parents of alien children are dying in their confinement. We see echoes of Tom and Gemma within each home that Gemma gets a glimpse of. As Gemma is dying she has this exchange with the boy:

Gemma: “What am I? What is this? What am I in this?”

The boy: “You are a mother.”

Gemma: “A Mother?”

The boy: “Yes, someone that prepares her son for the world.”

Gemma: “What does a mother do then?”

The boy: “She dies, you go to sleep now. Have a nice dream.”

Gemma: “All we wanted was a home.”

The boy: “Silly mother, you are home.”

Gemma: mumbling indistinctly.

The boy: “Pardon?”

Gemma: “I am not your fucking mother.”

The boy then buries her in the hole where he put Tom. He then leaves the community, and heads out to the store front promoting Yonder. There he finds Martin, who is old, and obviously not well. Martin hands the boy his name badge, and then dies. The boy then becomes the estate agent, completing the circle of life and torment.

A Few Thoughts On Vivarium

Alright. Woah. This such a crazy movie. Such an open book. This thing literally could be 19 different possible philosophical ideas and treatises combined into one. So why don’t we just throw the possible theories on the table and see what we can come up with:

Vivarium and Normal Life Ennui

Step back a second. Yes, this story is a horror story, it’s the worst possible thing that could happen to a young couple. To be nabbed, and forced to raise an alien child. But think about this for a second. This is also the American dream! To live in a neighborhood where are your needs are met? Where you want for nothing? You can spend your time doing whatever it is that you’d like? This is perfection!! No?

The problem with this movie and this Ennui theory is that many of us are literally in this exact situation. We are minus our jobs, or we are forced to videochat for all our meetings. Our kids are home from school, and they are trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Our favorite bloggers are resurrecting habits and lifestyles from families in the 1800’s to help us figure out what to do with our time. Ennui. This movie is pointing the camera at our prosperous lives that are spent with so little structured time in our lives, and forcing us to ask what really is our dream? Would we do better with working all day to survive, or would we do better with infinite free time on our hands? It poses interesting questions.

Vivarium on Normal Family Roles

Could it also be asking a few questions about gender roles and expectations? Is the movie talking about society’s role in forcing women to mother, to have children, and for the husband to senseless work himself to death? Heck, what if Gemma didn’t want to be a mother? And why is it that Tom checks out, and avoids the child entirely? I think it could be that the movie is asking questions about societal’s situational norms. When a woman chooses not to get married, we chastise her until she submits, and gets married. A man that doesn’t get married? Oh, he will eventually crumble. Why do we do that to these people? (Reminds me of the questions posed in the movie Lobster.) And couples that don’t have children are seen as selfish and rude. I know, because my wife and I couldn’t have kids the first 6 or 7 years. I remember saying, during this time, “My family is going up to the mountains this weekend.” and the look I got from everyone was like I’d just spat on someone’s grave. “What? You don’t have a family.” Someone said to me, literally in the middle of the meeting. “Uh, yes, my wife and I are going… we are definitely a family.” “Nope, no you are not.” I can still remember the sting of it like it was yesterday. We batter and abuse anyone that doesn’t fit the standard, “Married with children” stereotype. Could it be that the aliens are just professing the beliefs of these situational norms that society abuses others with?

Vivarium as Sci-Fi Horror Thriller

Or maybe, could it be, that this movie is actually just about aliens coming to earth, and occupying the planet in a totally different way? Instead of a Captive State sort of occupation, with internment camps, and overt oppression… what if they decide to manipulate through subterfuge, all of society, to do their whims for them. To raise their offspring. To bring about the population of the entire planet. It could be that. It could just be a horror inducing thriller that is scarier than it should be because of the way it plucks at our society’s underbelly, and internal weaknesses.

Or it could be all three at once. Heck, it could just be a Black Mirror episode run amok. Or, a Twilight Zone episode that jumped the tracks, like the Argentinian film Wild Tales that I loved so very much. Imogen Poots had a lot of insight wrt her first reading of the script:

“When I first read it the tangle metaphors were right there, with the housing crisis across the world, but specifically in Ireland, where they had these things called ghost estates where they had built many housing constructs and then they laid empty,” Poots described. “Because our director’s Irish, it was sort of clear that was a nod towards it, and on top of that there were some elements that had to do with gender roles and what is your identity when you’re taken out of the rest of society and on top of all of that is was just very much a fever dream, just like Jesse refers to it as. I think as it bangs on it sort of has a Machiavellian and sinister feel to its atmosphere, it’s kind of neither here nor there. It’s a hardcore genre, but it’s spooky and I think it certainly has the ability to kind of connect with any hardship or absurdity humans find themselves in, especially right now with the claustrophobia of it ringing very true.”

And if we were to ring Imogen up right now, and ask how the metaphor holds up, not specifically with regard to the housing crisis, but rather the Covid-19 chaos. Maybe it’s even more applicable today than it was yesterday. I did find this great quote from Imogen, where she talked about her time on 28 Weeks Later, and the quarantine lockdown chaos:

Poots did find the parallels between having starred in a film about an epidemic of sorts and seeing one come to life as “haunting” and in “someway inevitable.”

“It’s come around quite soon, the situation like this, but I don’t think we’re ever so far from having a moment of real lockdown, whether it’s due to climate dictating things or unknowable times, I can speak for the generation above having been through things like The Troubles in Ireland or Cold War in Vietnam, but this is difficult. I think that it comes down to survival and it comes down to that in a clinical sense is to have to survive and it also comes down to how do people prove themselves in times like these. I think even if they’re just movies, you’re watching people fight against something and you’re watching them often come together to overcome something. I think that there is hopefully something to be learned, but don’t get me wrong, it’s fucking weird. I’ve really been on quite a few films where people were trapped somewhere, so I’m like ‘Jeez, I really need to switch it up.’”

Edited by: CY