Vivarium – Film

Lockdown is rough isn’t it?  Stuck in the house with the same people you have been stuck with for over a month now, little respite and routine which is set to match Groundhog day.  The TV just has adverts reminding you not to go outside or the endless begs from charities even though many people are unsure what is happening with their jobs and need to put their own needs before others. It’s not all glum though, we have seen some amazing and inspiring things happen during this period – Captain Tom – what an amazing man he is, our key workers get recognised, the world being bought together in something rather than tearing itself apart for once.

It is quite difficult to image what other people are going through at the moment, as some will be mourning, some will be just getting through the days, some will be living with people they despise (I will be adding some useful links at the bottom of this article for anyone who feels they are in an unsafe or unhealthy environment).  Others will be loving the chance to be in their own world, concentrating on their own things without the distractions of usual daily life.

I guess that is why this film called out to me to watch.  I had been planning to watch it for a while, and I am slowly working my way through the ever expanding list.  This is a really new film out, so I won’t be giving a blow by blow account of what happens, rather looking at some of the key elements within it, but there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film and you are intending to watch it, look away now (but please come back and let me know what you thought after you have watched it).

Let’s get this out on the table now.  This film you will either totally love, or completely hate – there is no middle ground with it.  Either you totally buy in to the concept or you will see it as a pointless waste of an hour and a half.  I have taken this from the many reviews I have since read of the film, if you like weird (like I do) you will reveille in how bizarre this is.

I am going to start with the basics – Vivarium basically meaning a place of life.  Of course, you, like I did, might think of the glass tanks that people keep lizards and the likes in, but originally this was a word attributed to game parks – it just got scaled down for domestic use.

The Cuckoo

The opening scene of this film is fairly gruesome, but if you are unaware of the life cycle of the parasitic cuckoo, then this early reference to what the film is all about will pass you by and you might just see it as an introduction to the characters of the film.  What you see at the start is a cuckoo chick, pushing the other chicks and eggs out of the nest so that it can dominate the parent birds time and energy feeding it. As the cuckoo grows the smaller parent birds have a race to keep up with the feeding demands of the chick.  This can lead to exhaustion and, in some cases, death of the birds that have become the unwitting parents.

We should also take note here of the chicks which get pushed out and the mock funeral which takes place as this has a symbolic role which occurs again later in the film.


If you have seen the film, you will be aware that the estate agent (named Martin played by Jonathan Aris) presents as seriously off kilter.  All the houses in the showroom are on separate pedestals, despite them all looking exactly the same.

As the couple are led onto the housing estate to view the house, everything is green, everything looks perfect.  Then you will start to notice the sky is fake, the sun is fake, within the houses all the colours are not quite things anyone would ever put together.  All the paintings around the house, are of the house.  Despite best efforts of trying to make the houses replicate the perfect home, it is all just a bit… soulless.  It is the same for the garden, it all looks lovely, but it is fake.  On reading about the choice of colours and the way the houses are laid out was to mimic moss growth – this will play a part in things to come later…

There are little indications here about what is going on, the estate is called “Yonder”, being the other side.  As soon as the estate agent disappears, the couple find themselves unable to leave Yonder and, in fact, keep returning to house number 9.  The housing estate appears to be empty except for them… so there is no help.  Food arrives in boxes from an unknown source.  I need to note here, this is the turning point for the couple as they have really now just become pets.  I keep fish and I often wonder where they think their food comes from as it just floats down in front of their faces, and the Yonder food delivery in effect is just the same.  The couple notes that the food has no taste, and quickly we establish that while the food looks real it is all just created for keeping the pets and is probably all made of the same substance (enough of what they need to keep them alive).

After several failed escape attempts of Yonder, and an attempt at arsene (the house appears to regenerate itself), another box is delivered which has a baby in it.  The box reads “Raise the child to be released”…

The Family Unit

Prior to finding themselves in Yonder, Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) were really just searching for a starter home.  Being thrown into a home which they are unable to escape from, they are now faced with a ready made family.  The child grows at an extraordinary rate, going from a few months old, to looking about 7 in 98 days.  As most things in this film, the child is… odd.  It is learning the life skills it needs (the child never gets a name but is played by Senan Jennings), but from people who don’t want a child.  The boy mimics Gemma and Tom in a disturbing way (think back to the parasitic cuckoo) picking up how they speak to each other, their movements and actions, but lacking an understanding of emotion which frankly leaves you as the viewer cold.  When the boy needs something, it gives off a howling screech until it receives what it wants.

There are several times where we see the couple lose their mind and get into situation where they nearly kill the child, but natural law seems to prevail as it would with most people who don’t want to be marked as child killers as that really does go against our base instincts.

There is a really interesting point in this film, where you realise that the couple have fallen into gender stereotypes, Gemma as the caregiver (of a sort) and Tom as the man of the house.  Tom has started to dig a hole in the front garden which he believes could be their way out, while Gemma sends herself almost insane tending to this particularly needy child.

The child is drawn to watching the TV, which shows odd patterns in black and white.  These look like fractal pans or the Madelbrot set (look on youtube if you are unsure what this looks like).  In an interview with the director, Lorcan Finnegan, he details how the TV is programming the child on how to get out of Yonder and know what he needs to know for later in his life cycle.  There are heavy links with this type of pattern to bracken (you know the fern type stuff where each leaf set is exactly the same) but also with the way developers will design housing estates to get the most out of the area they have available.

Most of the film is taken up with the portion of Gemma and Tom falling into their roles and the child… doing whatever it is the child needs to do.  Tom and his hole, becomes an obsession, purely because I think it makes him feel like he has some purpose in this new reality he is faced with (lets face it, I think we all know how Tom feels while we are all in lockdown).  The thing to really note here is how both Gemma and Tom deteriorate.  Tom is becoming weaker from digging in soil that isn’t real, he is breathing in, whatever this reality is made of, and Gemma is being run ragged by the child.

This section of the film comes to a conclusion with the child going out one day, and returning with a book.  Gemma looks at the book which is full of symbols and alludes to the child not being human as it can inflate it’s neck.  She eventually gets the child to mimic who he got the book from, which terrifies her and pushes her back towards wanting nothing to do with the child.

The Life Cycle

The final section of the film sees Gemma and Tom almost at breaking point.  The child is now an adult and is still reliant on Gemma to feed it, but he displays a level of understanding of human emotion, when he asks her if she is displaying sarcasm toward him.

The man leaves every day, and while Gemma tries to follow him, she is unable as she loses him every time in the housing estate maze.

Tom is still digging his hole, and has developed a nasty cough and appears to be covered in bruises.  Gemma is now having to care for Tom when he isn’t down the hole.  Tom eventually finds something at the bottom of the hole… unfortunately it isn’t an escape, but a body in a body bag.  Shortly after this Tom dies.  It is almost as if he has realised his purpose, and the release that the box promised was actually the release of death, rather than being released from the estate.

Gemma begs the man to help her, but he hands her a body bag, throwing Toms body in the hole.

Gemma tries to fight the man, but doesn’t manage to do any damage, and he escapes by lifting the curb, and falling into another house.  Gemma manages to follow him, and falls through numerous different coloured houses all going through the same hellish purgatory that she and Tom have been going through.

Gemma finally ends up back in her own “reality”, her body exhausted from its lunge through other dimensions, and the man puts her in a body bag.  Before he zips it up, they have an exchange about “what is a mother?” the response is “someone who prepares her son for the world”.  Gemma then asks “What does a mother do then?” and the man replies “She dies”.  He then zips her up before she is dead and throws her in the hole, covering the bodies as the grass, magically regrows itself and the man puts the house back to “perfection”.  Remember the chick funeral at the start and how Tom and Gemma giggle at them burying the chicks under a piece of turf, the emotions are incorrect for the situation – that is reflected here with the man totally devoid of emotion as he buries the two people that managed to raise him.

The man then goes to the estate agency, where he finds the original estate agent – Martin, dying in his chair.  He bags him up, then rolls him up and stuffs him in a drawer, just in time for another couple to come in and start the cycle again.

Birds as a theme

There are lots of hints that the behaviour in this film is taken not just from the cuckoo, but from lots of different types of birds:-

  • The estate agent being called Martin, harking to the housemartin which likes to make its nest in the eaves of houses.
  • The child is dressed like a magpie – white shirt, black trousers, jet black hair.
  • The child’s scream is like a magpie’s.
  • The fractal pans that the child sees on the TV is like the birds eye view of the housing estate.
  • Gemma and Tom are like the by proxy parents of a cuckoo chick.
  • The way the child mimics the parents is like a minar bird or a parrot.

It is also no surprise that the housing estate is like an established cage or vivarium, waiting for pets to inhabit it.

Is the child an alien?

I have seen a lot of people writing about whether the child is an alien.  He is definitely alien to human species, and the setting that they are in is not man made, as it is able to regenerate itself, but my take on this was that the child potentially was evolved, and the housing estate in someway is an evolution of suburban life.  This new version of life has cut out all the things is doesn’t need for survival, such as emotion and real human connection, as it is unnecessary, it therefore just mimics what it needs to ensure survival.

Inside number 9 and why the house looks odd

The house that Gemma and Tom end up in is a symbol of suburban life.  This is what they think they want… The nice place with large rooms, space to raise a child, a garden which isn’t too big, but not too small.  All the appliances they could ask for…but the film is poking a finger at the absurdity of it all.

Finnegan has said that the number 9 has many meanings for him, but it does represent the gestation period of a human pregnancy, it is probably the amount of time Tom and Gemma are in the house prior to being “released” and  it has lots of links to mathematical patterns in nature.  I would also like to think it was a little tip of the hat to the English TV series “Inside No 9”, as some of the very dark humour as the same key notes.

As I mentioned previously, the house is odd, because it is all green with hints of egg yolk yellow and dusty pink.  These colours were picked out (as the director says) because they are mossy or lichen like to show how the estate is a living thing, but they are also anxiety inducing colours, giving the viewer the same feeling of claustrophobia that the characters in the film are displaying.

The outside… The fake sky and fake sun are so reminiscent of a Rene Magritte painting called “A Postcard of Nature” that it gives a really surreal feeling to the environment.  Much like the backdrop that you would put on a fish tank or vivarium, adding to that feeling of this being just a place to observe life, but not really to live it.  This is just a place to mimic the real world, to achieve one thing which is the cycle of life.

I really loved this film, and it is one that I can’t stop thinking about, but I can understand why people may not take to it, especially if you are going in, expecting a horror film and getting something that seems like a distorted view of everyday life.  The horror comes from seeing how your world would be so turned around if we remove our free thinking function and reliance on being bought up by parents and returning to the animalistic nature of learning through mimicry and preprogrammed though.

As I said at the start of this article, I would add some links for those who maybe going through their own personal hell during this lock down period (simply because this film is so reflective it), if you are in need of assistance, please look to one of these places for help, there is no shame in reaching out.

Have you seen “Vivarium”? Why not tell me what you thought in the comments?  Like this post? Why not share it?





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