Cannes 2019: 'Vivarium' is Minimal, Twisted, Smart Sci-Fi Done Right
by Alex Billington
May 18, 2019
There's no rules, no limits, to the kind of stories that can be told in the sci-fi genre. They can be big or small, space operas or intimate dramas or even noir thrillers, commenting on and critiquing society, politics, and culture through smart storytelling. Vivarium is another terrific indie sci-fi feature, a twisted thriller set in only one location. This premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Critics' Week sidebar, and was barely finished just a week before they brought it here. It's also yet another new sci-fi film borrowing from "Black Mirror" and "Twilight Zone" as a contained concept that doesn't provide all the answers, but it's clever and captivating enough to keep us wondering what's next. I dug this film. It's my kind of twisted, minimal sci-fi.
Vivarium is directed by Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan, making his second feature film after Without Name, with a background in graphic design. The film very quickly introduces us to a happy, young couple – Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg – who decide to stop by a real estate office on their drive home. The next thing they know, they're driving over to this idealistic neighborhood to check out the house. Once they get a tour of the "perfect family home", the very peculiar real estate agent disappears and they're suddenly stuck in this neighborhood. No matter where they go, they can't get out. Every house looks the same - they always end up back at number 9. No one else is around. They try to escape, but nothing makes a difference. Until one day a box shows up on the street in front of the house. What is going on? Where the hell are they?
There's the obvious criticism of domestication, that quaint suburban life of buying a home and starting a family. It's what every good American should strive for. But beneath the surface, literally and figuratively, there's much more going on in this. The film gets a bit repetitive exploring this story because it really is two people stuck in this house in a never-ending idyllic neighborhood. But it also smartly skips along and allows the characters to naturally freak out. They try burning the house down. They try driving around. They try everything, but nothing works. And we curiously watch as time ticks by. The only clue is under the grass in the front yard, so Eisenberg starts digging. There's nothing else to do and they're starting to go crazy, so he just keeps digging. Even by the end we still don't have all the answers, but there are some very freaky hints.
Unlike the other Cannes sci-fi film Little Joe, this one isn't slow or annoyingly repetitive. The filmmaking and reveals are strong enough to consistently keep your attention, and keep you guessing, wondering WTF is next. It's a twisted, crazy, captivating contained sci-fi thriller done just right. Finnegan and his team work in sly hints and "whoa" moments, but like any good "Twilight Zone" episode, nothing is clearly explained. Not even by the end. The film rests entirely on the shoulders of Eisenberg and Poots, who do an incredible job making this convincing as they spiral deeper into madness and despair with every passing day. I am excited for sci-fi film geeks to get a chance to watch this so we can talk about it and discuss what is really going on.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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