Vivarium (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Sea Fever (2020)

One of the most rewarding aspects of genre filmmaking is the way it liberates artists to accept that there truly is no story that hasn’t been told before, so why even bother. All a contemporary storyteller can really do is make a well-worn narrative feel fresh with new contexts & details, focusing on discovering new textures instead of inventing new structures. That conundrum is true across all media but feels blatantly out in the open for genre films in particular, which are entirely built on repeating & mutating already established storytelling patterns. This year’s aquatic horror creep-out Sea Fever is a prime example of how effective that kind of detail & context variance can be in a story we’ve already seen a thousand times before, chilling its audience with an eerily well-timed mutation of a very familiar genre template. There is no way writer/director Neasa Hardiman could have known how unnervingly of-the-moment her film would feel in the extraordinarily bizarre year it seeped into wide distribution, but that’s the power of genre movies at large. They allow filmmakers to look at old stories from new angles to unlock their full, evolving potency.

In Sea Fever, an Irish crew of deep-sea fishermen violate Coast Guard regulations to seek a bigger catch in whale-populated waters. However, their rickety trawler is thwarted by a much larger creature than a wayward whale. It’s caught in the bioluminescent tendrils of a gigantic, Lovecraftian sea monster that pumps the already dilapidated boat with a dangerous organic toxin. It first appears that a clear green hair gel is seeping through the walls of the ship, a mysterious substance that quickly contaminates the crew’s fresh water supply. That toxin is gradually revealed to be a parasite that causes madness (and eventually a gory demise) to anyone infected, putting everyone onboard at risk both by parasite and by fellow crewmembers. To stop this parasite from spreading to uninfected citizens ashore, the crew must quarantine themselves on the trawler for its full incubation period before seeking safety – a directive that puts the biology research student onboard (Hermione Corfield as the film’s lead) at odds with the working class fishermen who normally crew the boat. I shouldn’t have to explain how that internal conflict over whether or not to inconvenience yourself in quarantine to protect the mass-population outside is relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic the world was suffering when this film happen to finally hit VOD platforms this Spring, but it does sting hard once you get there.

It’s easy to tally the familiar genre tropes & iconography Hardiman reshapes for her own purposes here as they populate onscreen. A working-class crew being hunted by an unconquerable creature on an isolated vessel while staving off the madness of social isolation is immediately reminiscent of the Alien franchise. The monster itself is distinctly Cronenbergian in its menacing sexuality, particularly in how its semen-shaped tendrils pump toxic goo into the trawler through pulsating anus-shaped orifices; it’s as upsetting as it sounds. The most overwhelming influence here, however, is John Carpenter’s The Thing, especially once the gooey, seminal parasite has infected the crew’s water supply. Their already maddening, combative period of quarantine is amplified by the crew’s paranoia of each other and constant need to inspect their fellow victims for traces of infection. The movie stops short of deploying a Kurt Russell type with a flamethrower to strap his fellow crewmembers to a chair for involuntary parasite checks, but it’s not far off from going there. And even if it did, the timing of its arrival during the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychologically upsetting details of its monster invader would still have been more than enough to distinguish it as a worthwhile Thing revision. That kind of pattern repetition & mutation is exactly what genre filmmaking is all about.

I was a little hesitant about Sea Fever‘s potential in its early stirrings, as the limitations of its budget showed in the first few scenes’ imagery & dialogue. Once its central conflict got cooking, though, I was genuinely chilled by the experience, especially once it hit a heated debate about the personal sacrifice of quarantining yourself for the greater, communal good. It was nice to see a scientist positioned as the hero in that debate for once, something I took time to note even while squirming in discomforting resonance at the thought of the film’s invisible, lethal enemy within. If you’re looking for a variation on The Thing that resonates with a particular of-the-moment clarity in our current self-isolation limbo, Sea Fever is eager to crawl under your skin. That effective variation on a familiar genre classic is even more impressive once you consider how little impact the better-funded, better-distributed aquatic horror Underwater made earlier this year with a ton more resources at its disposal. The major studio entry in the aquatic horror genre was passably entertaining but did little to rework its familiar elements into something freshly exciting. By contrast, Sea Fever committed even harder to appropriating familiar genre elements and swam away with something incredibly disturbing & of-the-moment, an exciting achievement for a low-budget contender in the fight.

-Brandon Ledet