Vivarium is one of those movies you don’t fully appreciate until after you’ve had a chance to digest it. While it’s easy to stumble over the flaws in its plot and characters and the atrociously flat visual effects, the story as a whole is a well-executed, modern take on a sci-fantasy-horror.
The main problem with Vivarium’s plot is that it’s all payoff with no real setup, as if the writers couldn’t figure out what direction to take with the introduction. The opening scene fails to effectively establish the characters and their relationships, and the plot doesn’t kick off until Tom and Gemma enter the suburban hellscape of Yonder. All development before Yonder feels rushed, forced, and devoid of tension.
The key point at which the setup flops is the introduction of Martin and his hastily arranged tour of Yonder. The film makes no attempt to hide either Martin’s uncanny behavior or Yonder’s uncanny (and frankly, hideous) appearance. Tom and Gemma are both visually repulsed by Martin’s cryptic descriptions of their potential home, so there’s no reason for them to go with him on the tour. Tom mutters a comment about how persuasive Martin is in a halfhearted attempt to lampshade Gemma’s ridiculous decision to accept his offer, but this doesn’t clarify the disconnect between what the audience is being shown (Martin is creepy and nobody is interested in what he’s offering) and what they’re being told (Martin is persuasive enough to change Gemma’s mind).
Typically, in this kind of uncanny setting in which characters are trapped in a location, the characters have already made a commitment to be there. For example, in The Shining, Jack goes to the Overlook willingly to take a job overseeing maintenance and work on his manuscript. The hotel manager gives Jack a chance to walk away, but he still commits to the situation, making his goals, intentions, and the stakes clear from the beginning.
Tom and Gemma have no reason to go with Martin. They don’t appear interested in Yonder, and nothing is stopping them from walking away. Gemma briefly comments in the opening scene about how they want a house, but we’re never given the impression that they’re so desperate to find one that they’ll go with the first available option. We don’t any advertisements for Yonder or any indication that they’ve specifically sought it out; Tom and Gemma appear to just walk into Martin’s office off the street and start listening to his pitch.
I think it would’ve been more effective to start the film with Tom and Gemma entering the Martin’s office, perhaps after seeing an ad for it or making an appointment, then accepting the offer of a tour without Tom’s offhand commentary. Setting the plot up this way would show them as either gullible, desperate or susceptible to Martin’s supernatural manipulation (if that’s actually a thing). As it stands, the intended sentiment doesn’t come through, and it sucks the tension out of what should be the point of no return.
Other than the lackluster setup, the plot is well-paced, with each escalation effectively building the tension and mystery surrounding Yonder and the unnamed creature-boy I refer to as Hellspawn Child (HC).
Overall, I get the sense that Vivarium would work better as a book. The film clearly didn’t have enough time or space to provide necessary setup and context. The time jumps as HC grows up deprive the reader of countless moments of tension and character development, and world details like the tastelessness of the food and the stillness of the air don’t come across through the visual medium. With that said, Imogen Poots gives a stellar performance throughout the film, and while I had some issues with the artistic direction of Yonder at first, the visual aesthetic comes together in an intriguing way that beautifully conveys an atmosphere of isolation, ennui, dread, despair, frustration, and horror.