Vivarium (2019) | Explanation, Recommendations & Spoilers | Film Review
Vivarium (2019) is a science-fiction horror film written by Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley and directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film stars Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke. Vivarium (2019) was distributed by Vertigo Releasing and released on March 27, 2020 in Ireland. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime as of September 12, 2022.
In the beginning of the film, we see some baby birds in a nest. At first, it looks like there are three baby birds struggling to do whatever it is baby birds do (struggle to live, I guess). However, it becomes evident that one baby bird (who is significantly larger than the other two), is doing something other than just struggle to live, this baby bird is about to "This is Sparta!!!" the other two out of the nest for seemingly no good reason other than that he's an asshole.
And yes...animals can be assholes. I've seen it a thousand times, cats smacking the shit out of another cat, dogs pushing kids out of the way to get a treat, etc.. It'll never stop being funny, let me tell you.
Anyway, you're probably like, wtf, right? Here's the interesting thing, the bigger baby bird asshole is a cuckoo bird. Apparently, cuckoo adults are layabouts and don't want to be hassled with raising a kid, so they invented a genius method of getting their kids raised: drop them off in someone else's nest and make them raise it.
Apparently, instead of just letting the other birds live, the cuckoo, who apparently is truly cuckoo, knocks his competition (literally) out of the nest so he/she can get all of the attention and food. I mean, I guess if you want to survive, you need to make sure you're the only one getting everything. Apparently.
This is all true, by the way. I looked it up because I also wanted to know wtf was going on and thought it probably was significant to the story (it is) and would explain the plot (it does).
After we see the horribleness that sometimes happens in nature, we are introduced to Gemma (Imogen Poots), who is a teacher at an elementary school. She finds a student of hers looking at the two baby birds who were unceremoniously kicked out of the nest on the ground. Sadly, it seems they have given up the ghost and while Gemma is looking at them, her boyfriend with an exciting curly mop of hair tries to be funny by sneaking up on her and shaking the tree, acting like he is the tree talking to her.
Personally, I think these two are up for the "Worst Hair of the Year Awards." One has a curly clown mop and the other has some kind of triangular shaped/trapezoid haircut with bangs that are about two inches too short. Maybe they gave each other a haircut. In the dark. With a weed whacker. Or left-handed safety scissors. At least they match in horribleness, you know? You can't date someone who has better hair than you. Vidal Sassoon said that. Okay, I can't prove that he did, but he probably did, you know?
The boyfriend, we find out, is named Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and he's some kind of maintenance guy. Looks more like a part-time janitor to me, but what do I know? These two are going places, let me tell you. A teacher salary and a maintenance guy salary are going to get them a mansion! (or most likely a shitty apartment, but we'll see where this goes). I mean, on House Hunters (!999-Present), people who sell rulers or some shit can buy million dollar homes, so what do I know? A whole lot of nothing, apparently, that's what. I need to sell rulers...
Anyway, we learn Gemma and Tom are on their way to a real estate company office that sells...you guessed it, homes. Before they leave though, they decide to bury the baby birds two inches deep into the ground. Seriously, like two inches deep. I'd be like yeah, Tom...that'll work (and roll my eyes at his incompetence).
They leave shortly after their shitty burial service and arrive at the real estate office. The real estate office guy, who is dressed suspiciously like a Mormon going out to do Mormon things (like drink hot chocolate, try to mow your grass when it's 102 degrees out and help you move your 3,500 square foot house for free and shit), welcomes them into the store and...this guy is weird. Like really weird, totally uncanny valley territory, and after looking at the teeny-tiny house models in the store, Gemma and Tom kind of want to leave.
Me too...shiiiiit, I'd be pushing them out the door as soon as I saw that guy. I'd be the friend that'd be like, "Ohhhh sorry, um we have to go, I forgot I have to take a massive shit. Byeeeeee!!!" I'm the kind of friend you need folks, I'll get you out of uncomfortable situations fast (and probably embarrass you too, but who cares? You're not dead! That's all that matters really.).
Instead of going with my plan (only because I'm not there), they tell the weird guy in a half-assed, weak kind of "Uh, we aren't really interested, let's go" way, and the weird guy, sensing these two are the kind of people who find it hard to say no and do things they don't want to do out of politeness, pounces on their uncertainty and tells them just to go look at it, no harm done. Hmm...yeah, right, weird real estate guy, but if we don't go, we don't have a movie, so let's go.
They follow the real estate guy in their own car, talking about how they really didn't want to go and will just get it over with and look somewhere else. This is how people get dead, folks. D-E-D, dead. Just say no to things you don't want to do. Hey, you want to go to a clown festival later? No. Do you feel like seeing Pootie Tang (2001)? No. See? It's that easy.
Just say no, guys. You don't have to be polite all the time. There's a time and place to say no and you should always say no to a real estate guy who slightly resembles a Mormon missionary who is also maybe more than part-mannequin (I'm thinking mostly mannequin with some robot features to make him mobile) and is giving you the creeps.
They get to a suburban neighborhood where every house, yard and street looks exactly the same and park in front of house number nine. That's not weird or anything, so let's ignore it and keep going. The weirdo leads them inside and shows them around, telling them all about the house they don't want before leading them into the backyard and apparently ditching them back there. Confused, Gemma and Tom go through the house and out front, looking for the freak, but his car is gone.
They get in the car and try to leave the neighborhood, only to find they cannot find their way out. Frustrated, Tom demands to drive and basically loses his shit at Gemma when she can't find her way out. Tom, the dumbass, drives the car until it's out of gas. Resigned to staying for a while until they can figure things out, they leave the car and go inside.
The rest of the film follows Gemma and Tom as they figure out what's with the weird neighborhood, the weird real estate guy and if they are truly stuck in the neighborhood or not.
If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The Endless (2017)
The Ritual (2017)
*Discussion contains spoilers
After Gemma and Tom enter the house for the night, they remember that the creepy real estate guy put some strawberries and champagne in the refrigerator, so at least they have something to eat. Well, guess what friends? Apparently neither the strawberries or the champagne taste like anything. Great. That's great for them. You know, I'm starting to think this whole neighborhood is some kind of alien/robot/mannequin simulation, complete with food that tastes like nothing. Let's find out why, shall we?
Later that day, Gemma and Tom are outside and are surprised to see a cardboard box appear in the middle of the street when they just happen to look away for a moment. The box tells them that if they raise the baby inside the box, they can leave. Um. What. I'm not raising a baby. I'd boot that box across the lawn into the neighbors yard lickety-split. Nice try, trying to get me to raise your kid. Kind of sounds like the cuckoo birds from earlier, huh?
They, unlike me, apparently decide to raise the kid and we see a few months later that Gemma and Tom are awoken by what looks to be a six or seven-year-old kid who has rudely barged into their bedroom to make sure they are up. He is also suspiciously dressed exactly like the real estate guy, complete with a Mormon missionary get up (maybe he'll mow the lawn!} and a haircut that would make any man from the 1950's proud.
Hmm...is the real estate guy a cuckoo bird? Did he drop his kid off with them to make them raise it because he's lazy? Did he trap them in this neighborhood with bad food and nothing to do except raise his weird kid? I'm telling you friends, just say no. All of this could've been prevented if they had said no. Anyway, after the kid goes into their bedroom and stares at them, they both give him the finger. It comes across like giving your dog the finger; they don't know what it means, but that doesn't mean it's not funny.
They get up and go downstairs and we find out quickly that the weird kid is...you guessed it, an asshole. He starts screaming and won't stop until Gemma gets him some tasteless cereal with tasteless milk. See, this is why you kick asshole alien/robot/mannequin babies across the lawn when someone puts them in a box and tells you to raise them. Make the neighbors do it or something.
We also find out that not only is the kid an asshole, he's antagonistic, too. He barks incessantly like a dog, he asks annoying, invasive mocking and rude questions, and he seems to enjoy the slop the alien/robot/mannequins have provided. All in all, this all tells me he's the Antichrist. So, basically, he's just like a regular kid if my calculations are correct (they are). Gemma and Tom look exhausted, bored, and ready to give up. Hey, that's most of the clientele stumbling around aimlessly at Target, so maybe this is a widespread problem.
Tom, the curly clown mop extraordinaire, decides he's had enough of his morning slop and goes outside to smoke a cigarette. Gemma and Tom go outside to throw the cardboard box full of trash into the street and watch it to see who drops off a new box. Are the writers of this film trying to say that people who move into suburban neighborhoods where the cookie-cutter houses are aplenty go outside to escape their kids and watch the trash being taken away while smoking a cigarette? That's pretty funny and sad at the same time, because I can totally see people doing that.
Tom flicks his cigarette on the ground when he's done with it and the still-lit cigarette burns the fake alien/robot/mannequin simulation grass and exposes some dirt. Tom gets the idea to start digging to see if he can find them a way out. Later that night, they have sex and we see the little creep in their closet, watching them for some unknown reason. I mean, if you're living with something that grows at an abnormal rate and has abnormal behavior and is possibly an alien/robot/mannequin, you lock your door and check your room to make sure they aren't in there. I mean, who knows what kind of freaky thoughts are in that freak's head? Best not to find out, I imagine.
Tom continues to dig the hole and he keeps digging up some weird shit that looks like dirt mixed with couch cushion foam. Like, wtf is this place made out of? It kind of reminds me how weird it was in Beetlejuice (1988), when they were pulling up the "grass" and stuff in Beetlejuice's world/dimension or whatever it was. The thing is, Tom looks terrible and he's looking worse the more he digs. I'm guessing whatever veneer the alien/robot/mannequin things have put over the landscape protects the humans they have trapped from whatever alien shit is underneath. Tom is now exposed to it, so he's starting to get sick.
Later on, Gemma and Tom go out to their car and find that the battery still works, so they listen to a favorite song of theirs. They also find that they can smell things in the car and realize they can't smell anything in the alien world/reality. It brings them comfort and for the first time in months, they seem happy. They start singing and dancing outside of the car, but unfortunately, they find they have woken the littlest asshole up.
The littlest asshole comes outside, starts dancing with them awkwardly, because Fred Astaire he is not, and inadvertently trips Tom, causing Tom to fall and hit his head on the curb. Tom loses his shit and slams the weirdo to the ground, which causes Gemma to try to stop Tom and protect the kid.
I mean, I sort-of get it, Gemma primarily raises the weird alien/robot/mannequin thing and feels some sort of affection for it, is sort-of it's parent and it looks just like a kid, which is probably confusing to her. However, it is not a kid and that thing just hurt Tom. It really seems like Gemma has lost sight of what is really going on at this point, which hurts Tom.
The next morning, after the littlest shit this side of Texas gets up and antagonizes Tom yet again, Tom decides to lock the weirdo in their car because he can't take the thing's shit anymore. He tells Gemma if the alien/robot/mannequin things care, they'll come and get their offspring or the thing will die. I mean, I'd say kill it before it gets bigger because do you really think they would imprison you and make your life hell, just to let you go? They're either going to kill you or send more alien/robot/mannequin things for you to raise.
Also, I'd like to say that whatever has them trapped there is absolutely evil. They can't even change the weather for them or put flavors in food. No sounds. No books. No music. The only thing on television is some weird fractal shit that only the alien things can understand. I mean, no The Price is Right (1972-Present)? Not even reruns of COPS (1989-Present)? Absolutely evil.
Send those alien babies to me and ask me to raise it, shiiiittt. They'd probably boot me out within a week. "We've made a grave error putting you in here. You may go." Boom, back in the real world. The thing is though, I wouldn't be in there because I'd use the old, "I forgot I have to take a massive shit, byeeeeeeee!" routine and book it before they could trap me. Works. Every. Time.
Anyway, after Tom locks the thing in the car, Gemma loses it and goes and gets it out, which disgusts Tom. It disgusts me too, Tom. Tom decides he's going to sleep in the weird couch cushion dirt hole he's dug up and stop sleeping next to Gemma. He just wants out and I don't blame him, although I wouldn't dig that hole or be near it. He's looking worse and worse and has developed a nasty cough the longer he's near/in the exposed alien landscape, which sucks.
We learn that sometimes the boy leaves their reality and one day, he comes back with a book. It's some weird shit Gemma can't decipher, so she tries to manipulate the thing into telling her who gave him the book. It turns out this was a huge mistake on her part, because the alien thing starts imitating what the thing that gave him the book looked like and it's pretty horrifying.
His throat starts pulsating and he opens his mouth wider than what would ever be considered normal, causing Gemma to simultaneously shart and piss her pants (not really). Gemma does lose her shit though. She (thankfully) finally realizes that Tom was right all along and that she had forgotten that the "kid" was an alien/robot/mannequin thing. I mean, who could forget that shit, I don't know.
Some time later (probably a few months), we see the young asshole has grown into a huge adult asshole. Should've killed it earlier, like Tom wanted (and me too), just sayin', Gemma. It's still weird and it's become more cold towards Gemma and Tom, openly mocking them and enjoying the fact that he can leave the reality and they can't. It's like they raised Ted Bundy, for real. Wtf.
Tom, who has apparently spent a year (or thereabouts) digging that disgusting couch cushion foam and dirt hole, has finally gotten sick enough that it seems like he's dying. He dies while Gemma waits for the alien thing to show up. The freak finally shows up at night and brings Gemma a cardboard box. I don't know what she thought would be in there, but I assumed it'd be something bad, since apparently this thing is a sociopath.
She opens it to discover it's a body bag and she's completely horrified. The alien thing zips Tom up, clown wig and all, into the bag and throws him in the hole Tom had been digging for a year. That's nice. At least Tom's work didn't go to waste, you know? Gemma decides she's going to hide in the car and wait for the freak to come out the next morning to see where he goes. He comes outside and, wait for it, lifts up the curb and goes between the curb and the street. What a way to get to work. I'm not taking the car, I'm using the curb. Way faster and no fossil fuels wasted here, folks.
Gemma decides to move fast and take the curb, too, but once inside she becomes disorientated quickly. It's very weird in there, but this is apparently how alien/robot/mannequin's travel. She finds that she can go from house to house, houses just like hers, and finds that there are several other couples saddled down with alien kids, completely miserable, just like she and Tom were.
By the time she is shit out of the alien reality, thrust back into her own house, she is very sick and dying, just like Tom. The alien freak thing zips her up in a body bag as she dies, throwing her into the same hole as Tom, buries them, then takes their car to the real estate place to apparently take over for the now very sick and old freak who originally trapped Gemma and Tom there in the first place.
The younger freak puts the older freak in a body bag, rolls him up like a burrito and puts him in a file cabinet drawer. HAHAHHAHA wtf. Then he sits down in the chair, apparently ready to trap more people who can't say no in that shitty reality to raise more alien/robot/mannequin kids.
First, I want to say I really liked this film. After thinking about what it meant for a bit, I thought it had similar themes to Revolutionary Road (1961) by Richard Yates. From my perspective, Gemma and Tom are representatives of suburban parents, everyday, regular parents if you will. I get the feeling that a lot of people think that the "normal" thing to do is get married and have kids. The typical, let's move out of this apartment and find a bigger, nicer house with a yard in the suburbs near other, nice people, have two kids and live our lives. That's great, except, it doesn't work for everyone.
Of course, it's too late to take those choices back once you've made them. You can move houses, although it's not easy, but it's not like you can take your children back to the store once you find out it's too hard to raise them. If you're depressed because you're in a situation you can't get out of, food can become tasteless, you may not notice the weather changing and you have no energy to do anything. You might start taking care of yourself less and less and you can age quickly.
You may try to escape to your car for a few moments, just for a break from your reality. You might go outside and smoke for a bit, just for a moment's peace. In Gemma and Tom's reality, it's very similar to a stay-at-home parent and a parent who works, where one is with a kid or kids all day, feels closer to the kids than the other parent, but also feels jealous the other parent gets to leave and remove themselves from the situation.
I also noted that there seemed to be some similarities between the alien kid thing and kids who may be on the autism spectrum, kids with mental handicaps, kids with sensory disorders, etc.. Sometimes parents can react differently to the stressors of having a kid with special needs. Sometimes they can become more patient and sometimes they can become more impatient, sometimes violent.
Gemma seemed like she became more protective and patient the longer she spent with the alien kid and Tom seemed like the more problems the kid had (screaming, yelling, asking annoying questions, mocking, doing repetitive actions, etc.), the more impatient he became. He tried taking breaks and getting away from the kid, but the more the alien kid was around, the quicker he lost his patience and became violent, unable to control his anger and frustration.
When Gemma traversed through the alien reality, she saw some parents crying, some who did drugs, some having sex and one who had committed suicide. I think this is a commentary on what people go through when they are depressed and stuck in what seems like a hopeless situation. I don't think anyone should expect that what society says is normal and what society expects from people based on old traditions and values will absolutely work for them. Everyone has to find their own way, try new things and learn what makes them happy.
Following a simple formula (marriage + 2,000 square foot house + two kids = supreme happiness) seems crazy to me. It's crazy because there are so many messages in American society that tell us if we do those things, we will find happiness. I've known and observed so many people who are unhappy who have done those things that it seems a little insane that so many people continue to think something a lot of people do without really thinking if it'll work for them will actually work for them.
I personally think it's easier for some people to just do what is expected without thinking because going against societal norms is hard. It's hard to be different than what your family and friends expect of you. If you are in an organized religion, it can be very hard to choose to live a different way than what is expected. However, so many people are unhappy with something that is supposed to make them happy, I think something needs to change.
This is not to say I'm against marriage, or having kids, having a nice house in the suburbs, etc.. I'm not against any of those things. I think this movie brings up a lot of questions about what truly makes people happy, how choosing certain things in life without thinking can bring depression, regret and sadness. Like I said before, Gemma and Tom could've said no to the real estate guy. It's very typical of starting that kind of lifestyle; we don't really want to live there, let's go see it anyway. We don't really want to raise a kid, let's try it anyway.
Depression, anxiety and frustration can definitely separate parents who were once close, especially if they feel stuck in a situation. In Revolutionary Road (1961), April and Frank Wheeler found themselves in a suburban neighborhood, with two kids they really didn't want. April had accidentally gotten pregnant, they decided to get married and have the kid, even though they didn't want to get married and neither wanted a kid. They moved from an apartment in the city they both loved to the suburbs, where they lived in a house they both hated.
April stayed at home and Frank worked a job he hated and they began to resent each other. They had a second child to prove to themselves that they had chosen that life and weren't regretful of their choices, but didn't want that child either. It came to a point where April was so desperate for a change that she suggested they uproot their lives and move to Paris (from New York). This scared Frank tremendously, but he wanted April to be happy and he wanted a change as well, so he agreed.
Things were going well until April accidentally got pregnant and Frank, relieved he didn't have to actually change their comfortable but unhappy situation, tried to convince April they could move in a few years. April, realizing she was unhappy because she never actually had wanted to marry Frank, never wanted any children, basically told Frank she wanted an abortion and told him the truth about why she was unhappy and had always been unhappy. The book (and their relationship) ends in a really terrible way, but I see how a lot of topics discussed in the book still hold true in the present time.
I think Revolutionary Road (1961) has a lot of themes that are similar to Vivarium (2019) and both have a lot of ideas that still hold true today. I fully believe you have to think for yourself and live for yourself because living someone else's ideals can lead to unhappiness, depression, anxiety and living a life you don't want. It is hard to stand up to people you care about, society, friends, religious organizations, etc., but wouldn't you rather be true to yourself and be genuinely happy with your life? Living a life in a way where you are "just seeing" if something will work can lead to some decisions you can't take back.
What did you think of this film? Did you like it? Do you see similar themes in this film? Have you read Revolutionary Road (1961)? Do you see similar themes in both? Please share your thoughts below!