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SYFY WIRE Fantastic Fest

Vivarium exposes the trap of the suburban nuclear family

By Kristy Puchko

A home in suburbia is an indisputable status symbol. It's an achievement for a couple, proving they're grown up enough to commit, put down roots, and start a family. But behind the meticulously manicured lawns and freshly painted houses, horror can lurk. We've seen variations of this in films like Poltergeist, The Stepford Wives, and The 'Burbs. With Vivarium, writer-director Lorcan Finnegan offers a sinister new spin with a sci-fi twist. Yet at its core, this film is a dark satire warning of the prison that is the heteronormative nuclear family.

Below lie spoilers for Vivarium.  

Our story begins with a young unmarried couple, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). She is a kindergarten teacher with a warm heart; he is a handyman with a car full of tools for any household fix-up a client might need. They are a good team, resourceful and caring. And they're looking to take the next step in their relationship, seeking to buy a house in Yonder, a suburban development outside the city that's cryptically described by the socially awkward broker as "near enough and far enough." This strange man with a too-broad smile guides them to this ambiguously located neighborhood, where every block is identical, lined with two-story homes all painted the same shade of green. It's not quite pretty or pleasing. It's less the color of grass, and more the slightly sickly shade favored for surgical scrubs.

Though a terse tour shows the house is nice enough, Tom and Gemma aren't sold. But before they can leave, they lose track of the broker who bizarrely vanished in the blink of an eye. Without him, they are lost in this labyrinth of identical homes. And as no neighbors have yet to move in, they are all alone in their confounding crisis. There is no way out. They are trapped. And things only get stranger when a box shows up at their doorstep containing supplies and a cooing baby boy. A note informs them that once they raise the child, they will be released. For now, they are under observation. Yes, as the title implies Vivarium is about a human vivarium, where they are being held and observed by an unknown party curious about mankind's established chain of marriage, home, baby.   

Robbed of the outer world, Tom and Gemma are bound together indefinitely. Their lives are entirely limited to this home and each other till death do they part. With no social circle or jobs to define or distract them, they feel suffocated and so seek to establish identities beyond being each other's partners. For Tom, this means digging into work.

He may have lost his business and career, but he still has his tools in their car. Using them, he burrows into the pristine front yard hoping to dig his way out of Yonder. Each day he dedicates himself to this job. He comes in sore from the manual labor of it all, and impatient with his wife and the child. He digs from dawn until dusk but gets nowhere. His labor is fruitless. And then he dies. His body pitched in the hole he has dug, soon to be covered up and forgotten. His legacy lost under the pristine lawn on a block of identically pristine lawns, waiting for someone else to move in.

Gemma will fare no better. Initially, she and Tom try to rebel against the anonymous authority that has stuck them in this house with this child. They resent the boy. He looks like them but is alien to them. His existence forces them to stay in this house, in this life, until he is grown. They have to stay together for the kid. 

When Tom turns to his tunnel to nowhere, Gemma is left alone with the boy who mimics, repulses, and fascinates her. As Tom burrows into the yard, she gives in to her maternal instincts, trying to embrace her lot as this boy-looking creature's mom. She begins to smile. She tries to teach him how to be human. "I am going to figure out the mystery of you," she promises. But her affection for him pushes her further away from her romantic partner until all she is left with is a son who is destined to leave her behind.

Gemma will uncover more of the secrets of Yonder than Tom ever manages. She slips into other versions of Yonder where similarly trapped couples struggle desperation and dark-haired non-human boys of their own. But she will come no closer to escape. Her son matter-of-factly informs Gemma that her role was to be his mother. And the only way out of this suburban trap is death. Vivarium will travel outside the walls of Yonder for its finish. But its message is firmly seeded in that horrifying place.

Through this Twilight Zone-like story, Finnegan offers a cautionary tale of suburban allure and the idyllic life of a happy family it promises. By isolating suburbia from its promise of anywhere else, he presents it as a place where ambition and autonomy are lost to routine and obligations. It's a place where you will be watched. In this extreme example, it's by an ambiguous humanoid race looking to infiltrate society by feeding on the societal pressure to nest. But in real life, you might be ruthlessly observed by neighbors who'd regard your life as a curiosity to gawk over. 

As such, Finnegan argues that suburbia is a vivarium, trapping once vivacious individuals within its borders, and forcing them into its suffocating gender norms of husband and wife. It's a place where women are urged to be mothers selflessly dedicating themselves to their brood, while men must give their all to work in an endless quest for something more. According to Vivarium, the house, the marriage, the family that we're all pressured to want and urged to achieve is a trap meant to plug us into the merciless grind of a society designed to use us up and forget us completely.

All in all, we're just another brick in the wall, another cog in the machine, another lump in the lawn. 

Vivarium is available on VOD and Digital HD now. 

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