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Hollywood Insider Vivarium Review, Jesse Eisenberg

Photo: ‘Vivarium’/Vertigo Releasing

When studying the animal world, we often wonder if any of the bizarre rituals or survival techniques employed by some of the species we observe are similar to that of our own behaviors. Someone like David Attenborough is really gifted at this, weaving a personified narrative to draw these similarities between the undomesticated world and human society naturally into question. The various tactics utilized by many animals to secure their survival or to attract mates come as a bit of a shock when studied vigilantly enough, as it gives us a deeper look into some of our primitive resemblances. 

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan, Vivarium is a creatively horrific look at what might happen if there was a species that did to humans what the Cuckoo does to other birds. Starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, the story was co-written by Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley. At the start of the film, there is already an introductory sense of dreadful eeriness, represented by the image of a little girl discovering a dead baby bird under a tree. Yet the plot takes such a turn that you almost forget about it, everything seeming kind of humorous and sweet as Jesse and Imogen joke lovingly and go looking for a home together–you almost assume it’s somewhat of a weird comedy. 

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They end up finding a strange neighborhood that feels like something out of Pleasantville, or The Truman Show, where rows of uniform houses seem to portray a successfully happy community with no stains, cracks, or faults–until they meet the “agent” or shower of the homes, who they take to as being super strange, a little creepy, but for the most part weird enough to laugh at. The two of them don’t really want to buy the house, but they are kind of going with the flow as the man is adamant/enthusiastic about them seeing it. It seems like they get a decent kick out of his oddly eccentric behavior, subsequently making the overall creepiness of his demeanor somehow more comical than scary–letting our guards down. 

After the man “Martin”  shows them the house–fully furnished and ready to go–he disappears. Weirded out, but somewhat relieved that they can finally high-tail it out of there, the two characters find themselves looping the neighborhood for hours, always back to the same house they were shown– number “9”. Their car runs out of gas, and without much of an option, they go back inside and stay the night. They end up having the champagne and strawberries but find them devoid of flavor.

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A box of food–all flavorless– is mysteriously delivered to the house, and after exhausting all attempts at hacking whatever strange prison they found themselves in, (at some point burning it down, only for it to return) they find a package with an actual baby inside.  Accompanied with said child is a note stating, “Raise the child and you will be released.”

The story loses all light and humor real fast–which I thought was an intriguing contrast to the first half of the plot. The rest of the film is essentially the two of them, raising this little boy (who ages exponentially quicker than the standard human person–fortunately) until they are “released”. However, they can hardly maintain sanity as this ominous boy proves to be insufferable beyond imagination.

Ethology and Ethics

This science-fiction film is a uniquely dark imagining of what it might look like if an undetermined interdimensional species coexisted with humanity and used us to nest their young. This is one of the bizarre behavioral traits of the Cuckoo bird–which would make sense why now it’s used in our culture to reference someone who has lost their marbles. Cuckoo birds have an alarmingly aberrant approach to parenting as they do not build nests of their own to raise their young, but instead lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Once the eggs hatch, the Cuckoo will then see to it that the other species are removed, or pushed out of the nest. Cuckoo, right?!

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Side note: Much less harmful–but funny and interesting–there is also a species of fish (The female Brown Trout) that not only has the capacity for orgasms but intentionally fakes orgasms to encourage males to ejaculate prematurely. She basically deceives him to make him think he’s mated successfully when he in fact has failed. Point blank: Animals are complex. The plot of the film was an interesting conceptual draw from a hypothetical standpoint–it seems almost probable- in the science-fictional sense, I suppose. 

Kudos to the writers that were inspired by this phenomenon and made it into some hypothetical horror happenstance for humans, I applaud them for that. It was an intense watch–with much discomfort to be expected–but the script was ambitious, unpredictable, and intriguing. It raises the question of ethical relativity–can something be deemed as right or wrong if you are following the instinct of your species to survive? This kind of ethical question seems less fundamental and more circumstantial. Whatever is good is typically determined by how it proliferates the life of your species–there is no written universal law for it. It’s not even globally considered a moral issue to kill animals for food because we chalk it up as us a necessity for our survival– so is this species that traps humans in this labyrinth to be considered good or bad? Well neither really. Horrific, sure, but not evil per se. Good for them, bad for us. 

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Interdimensional Parasites – ‘Vivarium’

One of the other captivating things about this mysterious species is it’s uncanny ability to mimic the people around it. Seems like they may have taken a creative spin on the Cuckoos–often referred to as brooding parasites–in that they must employ creative mechanisms in order to properly identify their own species in order to mate. In another parasitic species of bird (The Brown-headed Cowbird), they must rely on a specific vocal trigger–or password. There is something similar to this in the film that foreshadows such self-referent phenotype matching. 

Definitely, my favorite part of the film was its creative depiction of the interdimensional world. The collapse style was really intriguing to watch, almost dreamily reminiscent of Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, except more surreal and much more dreadful. I was pleasantly surprised by the ambitious direction of this film, the acting performances, the innovative set design, and most notably the application of this Cuckoo concept. 

By Melissa McGrath

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