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Vivarium—a sci-fi thriller where the real horror is at home

This article is over 4 years, 3 months old
Claustrophobic, stuck indoors and can’t get away from the children. That’s the setting for a new film that probes family life, writes Sarah Bates
Issue 2697
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium

Ever felt like you’re stuck at home and can’t leave? For gardener Tom and teacher Gemma, this fate is exactly what they’re faced with in sci-fi thriller Vivarium.

The young couple are looking for a place to live, and are taken to the suburb “Yonder” where all ­properties look eerily similar.

Forced into desperation by a ridiculous property market, they go along to a house viewing, even ignoring the weird estate agent and setting.

But then they are stuck there. Every attempt to leave the street ends with turning a corner and ­finding themselves right back where they started.

It’s not the coronavirus forcing them to stay at home. It’s some sort of ­supernatural force that prevents them from leaving the street.

Soon they are faced with the ­biggest challenge of all—to raise an infant to adulthood, on the promise of release upon completion.

Here Vivarium slides into a tense domestic drama. Gemma, played brilliantly by rising star Imogen Poots, takes over the daily drudgery of caring for the child.

Gemma is the backbone for the drama in the film’s 93 minutes, and her character drives the plot forward.

The sight of her exhausted into submission and collapsed against a spinning washing machine will be a familiar one to many new parents.

Meanwhile Jesse Eisenberg’s rather unlikeable Tom focuses his efforts on escape. But he finds time to undermine and ignore Gemma’s increasingly panicked pleas for her to help him.

Yonder becomes progressively more claustrophobic, as Tom and Gemma grow physically weaker and the ordeal strains their relationship.


Intimate moments between the pair—a touch on the shoulder, an offer to do the washing up—become rarer as the couple struggle to cope.

The audience is shown precious little about their backstory, and a range of accents—British, Irish and American—make the setting hard to place.

Vivarium might not be the best film to watch right now—though ­perhaps some of their experience may ring true. It’s a bold film, and tries to pose some important questions about domestic life and the weight of ­society’s expectations of people.

If Vivarium had focused solely on these themes, probably a more ­polished film would have emerged.

The sci-fi element of Vivarium is noticeably weaker, and misses ­critical opportunities to build the ­tension throughout.

But when such moments do arise, they inspire moments of ­genuine terror, where Gemma is able to actually challenge her situation, rather than responding with her usual calm passivity.

Here the audience is treated to fleeting glimpses of the ­otherworldly context of Yonder. But these moments are seconds long—far too short to inject a real sense of what Gemma and Tom are battling.

So Vivarium is worth a watch. But it might be more comfortable viewing if you can go outside afterwards and feel the fresh air.

Vivarium is set to be released on 27 March


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