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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Vivarium’ on Amazon Prime, a High-Concept Freakout Comedy About a Couple Caught in a Suburban Hell

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Vivarium is yet another movie that takes on an added layer of accidental-slash-coincidental Quarantine Significance. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan, it’s a high-concept horror-parable in which a couple is trapped in a house — a house in an endless suburb of identical houses, a surreal setting that’s one part Escher painting, one part Sartre hell-tale. However, you’ll be happy to learn that it’s ultimately too weird to mirror too much of our current reality.

‘VIVARIUM’: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: Gemma (Imogen Poots) is a teacher and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) is the school maintenance guy, and they’re in love. They want to buy a house, maybe a quaint little place in the suburbs. A storefront advertises a development dubbed Yonder, but the agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), is like an alien from Zorbulon attempting to mimic human pleasantry. But he’s a persuasive alien from Zorbulon attempting to mimic human pleasantry, and they follow him to the house, No. 9 a cute mint-green two-story with a tidy astroturf yard among many, many, many cute mint-green two-stories with tidy astroturf yards. It ain’t their thang, but Martin disappears, and they can’t find their way out of the labyrinthine subdivision, and there’s no cell signal to use the GPS, and then they run out of gas. Right in front of No. 9.

They eat the contents of the welcome package: flavorless strawberries and champagne. Then they sleep. In the morning, they climb backyard fence after backyard fence, following the sun, which hangs like an artificial light in an artificial sky over an artificial world. The sun goes down, and they wearily jump one more fence and there they are, back at No. 9. But at least there’s a box of food. And another box arrives with a baby in it. “RAISE THE CHILD AND BE RELEASED,” reads the label. Well then.

The kid grows quickly. By day 98, the boy (Senan Jennings) is the size of a six, maybe seven-year old, and looks like a mini Martin clone, right down to the white collared shirt buttoned all the way up. Hmm. A box of food appears in the street every morning. The boy shrieks piercingly until there’s enough milk in his corn flakes. His voice sounds disembodied, like an older man’s pumped into a speaker in his throat. He mimics Gemma and Tom’s conversations with affected tones. How they got to day 98 without murdering him — well, maybe we shouldn’t go there. Tom begins digging a hole in the yard, and becomes obsessed with finding out where it leads. He works and works, and Gemma “takes care of” the boy, like a good classical hetero-suburban couple driven mad by society’s norms. But there’s obviously a game to be played here, right? Will they win? Can they win? Is there ever an end, or an escape?

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Eisenberg is frequently drawn to odd indie projects like this and The Double. The world they live in is like a haunted and empty Truman Show. The look-ma-an-allegory! concept brings to mind recent Netflix yuckfest The Platform. And endless-maze psycho-torture drama Cube is a clear reference point.

Performance Worth Watching: The creepy-little-kid thing is a cliche thing now, but at least this concept offers a fresh take on it — and Jennings is inspired enough to weird us out until nervous laughter escapes.

Memorable Dialogue: Gemma puts the dead in deadpan when she opens the box and holds up the baby: “It’s a boy.”

Sex and Skin: Gemma and Tom brief glimpse of a bare bum, mid-hump.

Our Take: Will Vivarium make us crazy, or draw out the crazy that’s already inside us? Yes! If you’ve ever felt hemmed in or tempted or teased by the school-job-marriage-home-kids wake-work-eat-TV-sleep rut-routine of Life Itself, well, here’s a cynical satire of it to almost enjoy!

Whether it’s more than that, though, I don’t know. Part of the reason the film keeps us watching is to see whether scripter Garret Shanley can successfully write his way out of the maze — and for the most part he does, in a manner that seems predictable in retrospect, but drops enticing little clues and details here and there to stoke the coals of our curiosity.

Finnegan entices sturdy performances from Poots and Eisenberg, and maintains a simple, but effective visual aesthetic, unsettling us with a purposely artificial facsimile of a suburban grid. He also stages a couple effectively chilling horror sequences to balance the light headiness of its overtly ominous concept. You’ll wish it was a little more committed to scaring us, to making us laugh, to making us question what modern society hath wrought upon the human soul, or maybe you’ll wish that the allegory wasn’t such a direct jab to the nose. But it’s ultimately admirable in its ambition and adherence to unsettling weirdness.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Vivarium is a slightly above-average entry in the genre of moral-myth horror-comedies with heavy symbolism and a little more ambition than means of execution.

Stream Vivarium

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