In some ways, I’m a little bummed that I didn’t have the chance to see the absurdist sci-fi chiller Vivarium on the big screen (due to this year’s ongoing COVID-19 closures). Not only is the theatrical environment my preferred way of experiencing any movie for the first time, but I suspect this film’s discomforting twists & turns would have been especially fun with a gasping crowd. At the same time, discovering this film alone at home might have been a blessing. Watching it in public almost certainly would have been one of those cringy experiences where I’m the only person in the room laughing at a film’s dark, peculiar sense of humor, and it’s probably for the best that I spared fellow theater-goers that annoyance. I knew this film was going to be grim & abrasive; I just didn’t expect that it was going to be so funny. It has a very cruel but highly successful sense of humor to it (almost exclusively about resenting your own spouse & child).
Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg costar as a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. Their relationship here, while explicitly romantic & monogamous, is no less combative than it was when they first paired up as violent nemeses in last year’s The Art of Self-Defense. The cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood they’re trapped in is an endlessly repeating grid of identical CGI houses, resembling more of a board game or a Sims neighborhood than an irl landscape. They’re completely isolated—quarantined, if you will—in a flavorless suburban prison, interrupted only by Amazon deliveries of their daily necessities and the arrival of the world’s most annoying child, whom they are obligated to raise to adulthood. It’s all an unveiled, naked metaphor about how frustrating & unfulfilling the suburban nuclear family lifestyle can be, and it only gets ghastlier as they sink further into their excruciatingly pointless domestic routine.
I’m not surprised to discover that this film is divisive, even among horror & sci-fi nerds who’d normally be on its wavelength. The central metaphor is unashamedly blatant; the disruptive child character is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook; and watching a young couple become exponentially sick of each other for 97 minutes is a deliberately tough sit. All I can say is that its antiromantic misanthropy really worked for me. I was even outright delighted by it, which feels perverse to say about a film that is so relentlessly miserable in tone. Vivarium is a cartoon exaggeration of the long-simmering frustrations & resentments that accompany even the most successful of romantic partnerships. It gawks at the traditional, decades-long monogamous marriage as if it were a sideshow attraction at the county fair, amused but disgusted by the freakish unnatural behavior we’re all supposed to aspire to.
Maybe going straight to VOD this year was ultimately the perfect release strategy for this film, since months of social distancing has cranked up the heat on any & all minor annoyances couples already had simmering on the backburner in a way that should help the movie resonate with its literally captive audience. If nothing else, watching this exhausted, joyless couple stare slack-jawed at their hyperactive child as it runs screeching through their house/prison felt familiar to a COVID-specific variety of tweets where parents complain about not being able to ship their kids off to daycare for a much-needed breather. Selfishly, I’m also a little glad I was blocked from catching it on the big screen because I almost certainly would have been laughing a little too loud at the film’s cruelly antiromantic absurdism, only making the experience even more grating for my fellow moviegoers. It’s already abrasive enough without my braying contributions.