If there’s any piece of modern science-fiction that has more of an influence on pop culture than we may care to admit, it’s Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker’s widely acclaimed cautionary sci-fi anthology show has already reshaped the genre’s recent modus operandi into one of ham-fisted, even condescending lecturing on how the trappings of modern life are luring us to our doom. In a way that criticism has always been the genre’s goal, but never before has it been so obvious and digestible.
Writer-director Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is a principal victim of Black Mirror’s patronizing influence. Playing like an overlong episode of Brooker’s hit show, Finnegan’s stylish and well-acted tale of suburban malaise nevertheless crumbles under the weight of its painful metaphors and empty philosophizing. Following primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her American groundskeeper boyfriend Tom (a miscast Jesse Eisenberg), the film opens with the pair looking to buy a home together and getting more than they bargained for. After meeting an eccentric realtor (Jonathan Aris), he offers to show them a new housing community on the outskirts of town that turns out to be an elaborate trap.
The couple is confined in the seemingly endless maze of a suburb and given a strange task in exchange for their release: raise a baby given to them by the unseen beings who control their prison. As the child grows rapidly and exhibits increasingly strange behavior, the duo begins to lose their sanity as they realize they are caring for something not quite human.
That’s a fun enough set-up on its own, but mix in Finnegan’s heavy-handed theologizing and the film quickly starts to test your patience. Vivarium is a difficult, sometimes even hellish experience that frequently overstays its welcome with its gloomy outlook on the modern human condition. It can be darkly funny when it’s aware of its own absurdity, but even the humor is undercut with some amateurish attempts at making a point. Some plotlines feel pulled straight out of Metaphors for Dummies, the most egregious being Tom’s obsession with trying to dig his way out of the neighborhood. By the time the film concludes, his fate of “digging himself into a hole” will have you rolling your eyes deep into the back of your skull.
While the script is a sophomoric mess, Vivarium is not without its merits. Imogen Poots continues to have one of the most quietly superb outputs of the decade with her strong performance, anchoring the film’s tricky moral center with equal parts of compassion and rage. She gives the film a raw, human element amongst its (sometimes not) purposely stilted characters, relaying the kind of frustration and madness that makes science-fiction stories so empathetic and impactful despite their sometimes cold methodology.
Vivarium itself is often a treat to look at, turning its creepy suburban malaise into an effective tool. Much of the plot has a dreamlike feel aided by Finnegan’s minimalistic style, which turns the setting into a too-perfect painting dotted with unnervingly similar clouds and endless rows of greenhouses. For a film with a set-up and a central performance this good, it’s a pity that it can’t help but ignore its own warnings about buying into cultural expectations.