House hunting is a tiresome ordeal that most people dread, and with Vivarium, the horrors of house hunting are taken to the extreme. Here, young couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) find themselves in a strange real estate agent’s office with an even stranger real estate agent who takes them to an unnervingly strange neighborbood consisting of completely identical houses with no personality whatsoever.
Being suddenly abandoned by the real estate agent, the couple attempts to leave on their own, but regardless of which road they turn down, they always end up in front of the house they had just been shown – and things only get increasingly stranger as the film goes on.
From here on, this unconventional science fiction horror focuses on how Tom and Gemma cope with their captivity as they seemingly settle into what appears to be a surreal simulation of suburban home life, where various supplies are dropped off outside their doorstep without any indication of who left it there.
As the title and the unexplained appearance of supplies suggest, Tom and Gemma soon come to realize that their every move is being monitored by an outside force, and they find different ways of coping as they continue to question what is going on and how they can escape.
The sense of unease felt by the protagonists is emphasized by the production design, which is unnerving in its streamlined simplicity and gives off the intended impression of having been created by someone who has attempted to create something reassuring and homey, but clearly does not understand what such a deeply human concept entails. Everything from the house to the furnishings, food and garden all feel like imitations of everyday objects we take for granted, allowing the superficiality of the setting to add further mystery to the film.
In terms of the performances, both Eisenberg and Poots are relatable as they bring a grounded energy to the characters of Tom and Gemma that keeps you invested in them throughout the film. The way their circumstances alter them as individuals and as a couple feels organic, serving as a realistic contrast to the otherwise thoroughly surreal and synthetic scenario they find themselves in.
As for the young boy also featured in the film, while Senan Jennings’ performance is fine in itself, what elevates this character to being truly sinister is how his voice is altered, which makes the character’s presence deeply unsettling on a level that brings the likes of The Omen’s Damian Thorne and the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to mind.
The pacing of the film is slow but smooth, striking an ideal balance between effectively showcasing the debilitatingly repetitive nature of the story without becoming dull or dragging along a before reaching an equally delirious and disturbing conclusion.
Like a diabolical Groundhog Day, the protagonists are trapped to live identical days in the hellish fever dream that is the realm of Vivarium. Unlike the Bill Murray classic, however, there is nothing amusing about this scenario as the film does not feel the need to inject humor where it is not needed. Instead, Vivarium stages its two protagonists as sincerely human characters trapped in a relentlessly dystopian setting, and the end result is an intriguing, deeply original and genuinely mystifying science fiction thriller that keeps a firm grip around its dystopian theme and storyline from start to finish.
Verdict: 8 out of 10.