A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Vivarium is a sci-fi/horror movie about a couple (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) that goes to look at a house and then can't escape the neighborhood. The setting is dark and dystopian, and there are few positive representations or messages to be gleaned (though one character is a teacher who clearly loves her job and children). Violence is infrequent but disturbing: An otherworldly young boy often shrieks when he's hungry or upset, an older character tries to hurt the boy and advises someone else to "let it starve," a body is discovered in a body bag (it's so dark it's hard to see exactly what's going on), and characters die and are slowly and prominently zipped into body bags and disposed of in a deep hole as well as "folded" and placed in a drawer. The movie opens with a sequence in which baby birds are pushed out of a nest -- later, their dead bodies are on the ground. A character who appears to be human suddenly transforms into something with inhuman characteristics. A couple has sex underneath a sheet with moaning and movements while a young boy watches from the bedroom door. In another scene, a woman's breasts are briefly visible as she bounces on top of a man. One character smokes cigarettes prominently. Language includes "f--k," "f--king," "motherf----r," and "s--t," as well as rude gestures.
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What's the story?
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are an ordinary couple looking for an ordinary house when a chance appointment with a strange real estate agent leads them into the VIVARIUM. Masquerading as a typical suburban neighborhood, otherworldly development Yonder holds rows of silent, uninhabited houses that all look alike -- and keeps Gemma and Tom prisoner. What is the secret of Yonder? And can Gemma and Tom escape alive?
Is it any good?
An intriguing setup, impressive visuals, and ominous sound design make this sci-fi creeper fitfully compelling, but the premise runs out of gas partway through, rendering it a bit of a slog. The film has a real Twilight Zone feel, particularly near the beginning, when a bemused Tom and Gemma discover that they're trapped in Yonder. The camera watches their white car from high above as it loops and meanders around the eerie grid of mint-colored houses, finding no escape. Later, the couple discovers a box labeled "Prospect Foods," full of vacuum-packed lamb chops and shelf-stable milk, which appears out of nowhere and disappears just as mysteriously, now filled with Tom and Gemma's dirty dishes. Tom and Gemma set up watch to see who or what is taking and delivering the boxes -- hoping to "bash their brains in" with the gardening equipment Tom brought in with them -- but the moment they look away, the box is gone.
Moments like this are eerie, to be sure, but there's a reason why the best Twilight Zone episodes are only half an hour long. That's just long enough to introduce characters, spring a strange surprise on them, and wrap things up tidily with no dead spots in the drama. A longer running time necessitates more plot, and Vivarium is lacking in that department. Another mysterious box delivers a human (or is it?) baby to the couple, with a note that reads "Raise the child and be released." But is this unnamed new character, who grows to the size of a second-grader in a few months and shrieks unnervingly when he's hungry or bored, really a child? And just what kind of "release" can Tom and Gemma expect when the "child" has reached adulthood? The answers are slow in coming. They're nicely unnerving when they arrive, but the wait will try most viewers' patience, leaving them to check out emotionally from Tom and Gemma's plight. Still, the sight of Yonder's mint-green rows of lookalike houses, the fluffy fake clouds above, and the unsettling grinding and squeaking noises on the soundtrack aren't easily forgotten, even if this film's too-light plotline may be.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what messages the filmmakers are sending. Is Vivarium about the crushing perils of conformity? About suburbia vs. city life? About what happens to people when they commit to a relationship? Or about something else? Are the messages clear? Are they important?
Putting characters in an alien world is a common sci-fi setup. Why? How would Vivarium be different if it were set on a different planet or in a fantasy realm with supernatural creatures? What elements of Yonder are realistic? Which aren't?
How does Vivarium use sound to affect what viewers are thinking or feeling? What types of sounds are heard at tense parts of this movie? How does the sound ramp up the tension? Is the mood different if you watch the scene with the sound turned down?
- On DVD or streaming: March 27, 2020
- Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris
- Director: Lorcan Finnegan
- Studios: Lovely Productions, Fantastic Films, Frakas Productions
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Run time: 97 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language and some sexuality/nudity
- Last updated: May 7, 2020
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