Vivarium (2019)

*. Vivarium is part of the New Weird in terms of genre, meaning it’s a mix of dark fantasy and SF. Whenever I get into a NW book or movie I suspect some kind of allegory is intended. I think that’s the case here as well, but it falls short.
*. Here’s the story (read no further if you want to avoid spoilers). A young, unmarried, childless couple — Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) — go to a new townhouse development named Yonder, a place which makes the usual “cookie-cutter” appellation seem quaint. After a brief tour their creepy guide leaves them, and they find out they’re trapped. No matter how far they walk or drive, or in what direction, they always end up back at Unit 9. They are the only people around. No cell phone coverage, naturally. Boxes are dropped off with food and other supplies. Then a baby arrives. They are told to raise it. It grows up quickly, and gives signs of being some kind of alien life form despite looking human. Then Tom and Gemma die and their now adult (adopted) son goes to work in the same real estate office that they visited at the beginning.
*. Allegories have two levels of interpretation. On the literal level, as far as it is explained, Yonder is an extra-dimensional space constructed by aliens, or some other species native to Earth but unknown to us, whose purpose is to force humans to raise Yonder young.
*. Just on the literal level my basic problem is the same one I have with most such alien movies, or movies involving supernatural creatures like devils or demons. If these other beings are so smart/technologically advanced/powerful, then why are they wasting their time preying on humans? Don’t they have better things to do? The Yonders put all this effort into building their nests just to end up dressing like Mormon missionaries and selling real estate? I guess cuckoos have no imaginative life of their own, but these particular creatures are technologically sophisticated and even write books. They have a culture. So I don’t get it. Their existence seems far more complicated and even less fulfilling than Tom digging a hole in the yard.

*. That’s the macro problem I have, on the literal level. I’d also wonder why Gemma and Tom weren’t put on their notice right away by an estate that looks even more like a Guy Billout picture than the town in The Truman Show. Much more. Those clouds! Also, where are the garages? It’s obviously a commuter development but there’s no place for anyone to park their cars except on the street. There aren’t even any driveways! Did this not strike them as odd right away?

*. Then there is the message, or allegorical meaning of what’s going on. This is pretty grim. The suburbs are hell. Work is pointless drudgery. And once you have a kid your life is forfeit, as you no longer have any purpose except to serve the little monster. Are we all so alienated today, from where we live, what we do, and each other? Well, this movie seems to be saying, Yes we are. And the virtual world next door is even worse.
*. Not very uplifting, or profound. And indeed I thought it all got a lot less interesting as it went along. Obviously we’ve been here before, in what I’ve dubbed the Simulacrum movies (The Truman Show, The Matrix, Dark City). I suppose the only thing different here is that we have become even more complicit in our own destruction. The cuckoo Yonders (it’s an analogy the opening credits introduces, crudely), are taking advantage of our nurturing nature, the sort of thing that helps us endure the stations of the cross of parenting. The moral of the story being that . . . we shouldn’t give in to these feelings? That it’s all just a conformist scam? I don’t know.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the Black Christmas remake (if that’s what it was) that Imogen Poots was growing on me. She grows some more here, as she carries the movie, distracting us from a super-creepy and annoying boy (he likes to scream) and an only slightly less annoying Jesse Eisenberg. I’ve also noted before how Eisenberg is not growing on me, and while he’s not bad here I still don’t care for him. And playing a landscaper?
*. Neat to look at, and given the premise it doesn’t matter that Yonder seems like a movie set or virtual environment. The artificiality of the design is something you’re supposed to appreciate. The characters, however, don’t seem any more three dimensional than the sets, and the point of it all struck me as glum and uninsightful.

30 thoughts on “Vivarium (2019)

    1. Alex Good

      And yet he pops up everywhere, and in a lot of things where he seems really out of place. It’s weird. Thought he was OK in The Double but that’s it so far.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Still haven’t seen that. Every time I’m thinking of borrowing it from the library I think of how I like Zuckenberg even less than Eisenberg, and how Facebook has had such a negative impact, so I probably won’t like the movie.

      2. fragglerocking

        The movie is really well done in spite of the dislike of them. There’s a great supporting cast and it’s quite fascinating to see the origins of the evil behemoth. I really enjoyed it anyhoo.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        OK, I’ll pick it up. I reviewed a book a few years ago about the start of Facebook and it just left me depressed. But I think this was the movie that really launched Eisenberg so I’ll see him at his best. Fingers crossed.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Why don’t I just send you a list of my celebrity friends so that you know who is off limits? Did Jesse for Adventureland, in a Grassmarket hotel. Not a bad word to be said about him.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        He was, I think that’s the worst I’ve seen him. He’s good in other things. Nobody has been good as Lex Luthor since Gene Hackman; that’s what I know about superheroes.

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    I just wonder to myself, why?

    Of course, that’s not particularly in reference to this film. In fact, it’s a statement that could have nothing to do with it. For that, I should apologise.

    Oh, and in terms of Vivarium, my life’s aim will be not to watch this.

    P.S. Jesse Eisenberg can play one character – asshole.

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        What do Morgan Freeman (sage old man), Michael Cera (awkward teen), Adam Sandler (man child) and Jesse Eisenberg (asshole) all have in common? The brilliance of type casting.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I haven’t kept up, but Sandler has reinvented himself as a dramatic actor hasn’t he? I can’t say because I haven’t seen any of his serious movies. He was certainly a type of the man child in his comedies though.

      3. Over-The-Shoulder

        He’s crazy good in Uncut Gems, to be fair. I would say “reinvented” is a strong word – he’s made too many sickeningly bad films for me to take him seriously, which means still a man child in my books.

    1. Alex Good

      They’re told that they have to raise the child if they want to be released. Also, the implication is that at least in the case of Gemma, she is betrayed by her maternal instincts (which the aliens were probably counting on). Tom actually does try to kill it in the early going but she stops him. Then she tries to kill it later but by then it’s too late.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Much as I admire John’s ability to get things done, he would still have been trapped in another dimension, a rat in the alien maze. Which means no more sequels. I think it would have taken one of the Marvel line-up to crack this one.

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