Vivarium – Fantasia 2019 Review

In the opening titles of Lorcan Finnegan’s latest sophomore feature, we see a sudden slow-motion montage of a newborn flightless bare-feathered creature plummeting to its death. As it steps out of the comfort of his mother’s nest, the bird lands face forward onto the cold hard ground; dead. In dark red letters, we see the title of the film, Vivarium; in its vampire-esque glory calligraphy. In some ways, Finnegan’s cruel sense of humor, which is featured throughout his epic suburbia drama, plays its most sadistic joke on the audience at the soonest moment possible; through the film’s aforementioned opening titles.

Without any mention of the primary characters, the setting, nor even any indicator of the direction of the plot, Finnegan ingeniously crafts an outstanding introduction, and an ever-bounding thesis of nature versus nurture. The flightless child, dead at the seams of an elementary school playground. The mother bird, grasping the events at play, and the torture she has committed against her own offspring. Was she ever suited to become a parent in the first place? Are Gemma and Tom ready to live in peaceful serene suburbia, or will they have to face a similar fate to the birds and their uninformed decisions? 

Like any first-world horror story, Vivarium tackles the typical trials and tribulations of adapting to society. Particularly critiquing the modern-lifestyle of the millennial generation, and their specific lack of transitioning to more familiar based territory, Vivarium manages to playfully satirize the living conditions of the generation’s plagued lifestyle, by clashing concepts of the Nuclear Family into a refreshing modern-day setting; without offending nor stereotyping the frequent struggles which many young-adults have to face. The couple featured in the film, Gemma and Tom (who are brilliantly portrayed by Jesse Eiesenberg and the incredibly under seen Imogen Poots) are prominently used as a narrative device for the film’s central thesis. With the majority of their individual discussions revolving around living conditions, and potential nurturing practices, Gemma and Tom are prominently referred to the audience as humanistic lab rats; in an unconventional maze of an ordinary nine-to-five habitat.

Even in it’s visual aesthetic, there’s a certain lingering sense of doom and imminent danger, featured throughout each and everyone of the pastel-colored houses. Utilizing an impressive array of practical effects, including miniatures, stop-motion cut scenes, and a genuine interest in depth of field; everything in Vivarium feels real and handcrafted. Sure, the production design looks oddly familiar to the 2003 re-incarnation of The Cat in the Hat; yet it ultimately dodges a bullet from this very comparison due to Lorcan’s clever reincorporation of the location into the film’s wacky narrative. 

It’s unfortunate that film ultimately resorts to an underwhelming amount of science-fiction visual jargon in its third act, where the laws of human nature clash against nurturing ideologies no longer feel fresh. In return, we receive scenes of visual stimuli, some admittedly horrific, that ultimately doesn’t add anything to the film’s already dense and compact messages. It really is a shame. Poots gives a Toni Collette in Hereditary-level horror performance in these final few minutes; yet the intrigue nor motivation of the film’s final set-pieces are largely a chore. Vivarium is a daring, adventurous feature sophomore feature debut, with an incredible sense of science fiction-horror, which perfectly encompasses both the real and surreal, that unfortunately concludes with a dissatisfying whimper.

Vivarium screened at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival. Saban Films recently purchased the United States rights for the film, and is potentially set for a 2019 bow.

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