There is a lot to say about the ‘ordinary.’ Ordinary lives are quite stable and don’t require a need for overplanning. Safe and relatively predictable, the ordinary is not bad; in fact, it can be quite beneficial. Ordinary movies are also fine because they can be simple and fun. As long as they’re well done, they can be worthwhile. However, it’s harder to maker make the ordinary frightening. Vivarium portrays what should be a safe and happy environment, then uses it to send chills down the spine. Unfortunately, a brilliant start slows down midway through, leaving a potentially exciting ending dull and without much impact.
The story revolves around Tom and Gemma, a happy couple. She’s a teacher, and he works a manual labor job. They’re looking for a house, and find an interesting opportunity in the suburbs — in an eerie, near-perfect community called Yonder. A real estate agent named Martin offers to show them their new home and delivers them to the idyllic but off-putting new house. The moment they enter Yonder, Vivarium starts to get truly terrifying. Imagine a world with a Pixar wallpaper skyline, where the clouds look like cartoon clouds, the sky is blue, and everything else is asymmetrical seafoam green. It’s clean, quiet, and far too perfect to be real. After a tour of the house, however, Martin disappears. Tom and Gemma can’t find their way back home and become lost in the ocean of box-like little houses, always returning to the one they now own. There’s no exit in sight, there’s no signal for their phone, and the forest of little boxes goes on to infinity. This psychedelic maze sends them in circles, with no soul in sight. Soon, they are given a box with a baby in it, with a simple message to raise it and then they’ll be free. This is unfortunately where the horror stops, and Vivarium changes into a nonsensical, oddly dark comedic mystery.
At first, the child is terrifying. It rapidly ages, and wears a singular outfit consisting of a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt, black shorts, and black shoes. In addition to his slick black hair, he shares a similar appearance to Martin. Every morning the family eats the same meals and partakes in the same mundane activities, all while doing their best to not outright murder the demon child, but any moment the kid feels that his routine is hindered or delayed, he lets out a blood-curdling scream. The dark humour comes from us watching the parents suffering, but they act far too annoyed and not terrified enough to make this scenario remotely scary. It only gets sillier when the boy runs around the house and starts to yell “WOOF” non-stop, and this repetitiveness quickly wears thin.
Vivarium could have been a great one-hour special on Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone
Vivarium continues to lose focus when it introduces additional weirdness. Though intriguing, these threads are simply red herrings and waste what is otherwise a perfectly good premise. Tom digging a hole, the boy loving one TV channel, and other open-ended subplots seem to serve a purpose, but just end up as nothing but wasted space and time that ruins the initial story. The problem with these additions is not that their mysteries remain unsolved, but that they don’t seem to add anything of value. If the hole digging and the child rearing were the only points to follow, then Vivarium could have been a lot better. Not everything needs to be explained, but when an unknown is thrown in, it still needs to serve a purpose.
Besides the additional mysteries, one of the biggest problems lies with the characters. Tom and Gemma are very simple; their ordinary lives are perfect and their characteristics are just so bland and uninteresting that it’s hard to care what happens to them. The Boy has more potential, with an unsettling cadence to his voice that at times makes it hard to tell if he is a child, or possibly an adult. He terrifies fairly well, but loses some magic when the other mysteries take center stage. At that point, he simply becomes a nuisance.
Vivarium could have been a great one-hour special on Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. However, a great premise is dulled down to a feature-length movie with too much weirdness and dark humor. The first thirty minutes are outright terrifying and could have used the ordinary couple to the fullest extent, but the lack of character development and unexplored mysteries don’t give the movie anything to dig into.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 4. Visit the official website for more information.