Worst. Open. House. Ever.
Tom and Gemma weren’t even interested in Yonder, really—the funky suburb that salesman Martin had somehow talked them into seeing. Sure, the couple was looking for a house, but not this house. Not in this neighborhood. Even the mini-models in the showroom were boring. Each model looked exactly the same—right down to the creamy avacado hue each was painted, the color of Pepto-Bismol if it came in green.
The neighborhood was worse. Calling them “cookie cutter” would be a disservice to cookies. The houses seemed clones of each other. And that’s not all: Even the trees looked cloned. The umbrellas, cloned. Every fake blade of fake turf looked exactly like every other.
But Gemma and Tom politely listen to Martin’s spiel as he walks them through house No. 9. The master bedroom (with a picture of—what else—the master bedroom hanging over the bed). The kitchen (with a guest basket in the fridge, complete with champagne and strawberries). The living room.
“A room to live in,” Martin says. “Memories will be made in the ample spaces between these walls.”
Gemma and Tom smile and nod and look at a few more rooms, knowing there’s no way they’ll buy a place in Yonder. Not their style. Then again, is it anyone’s?
But then when they’re ready to go, Martin is nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the suburb simply swallowed him whole.
Tom and Gemma climb in their own car and drive away from house No. 9, happy to leave this sickly mint community.
But it’s not so easy to leave. Every street and row of houses looks exactly the same. Turn left, turn right, doesn’t matter; they’re still in Yonder. It’s as if the entire community is a Mobius strip. They drive all afternoon and into the night, the car finally running out of gas … in front of house No. 9.
They walk in and open the gift basket. They eat the curiously tasteless strawberries, drink the champagne and promise each other to have another go at it tomorrow. Surely Yonder ends somewhere, right?
Perhaps. Nothing lasts forever, right?
But perhaps Yonder will last longer than Tom and Gemma.
The “boy,” who after about three months’ time looks to be about 7 or 8 years old, is fascinated by dogs. He sometimes goes around the house barking. He also calls Gemma his mother. When Gemma says she’s not, the boy asks, “Who is my mother?”
“God knows,” Gemma says.
“Dog knows! Dog knows!” the child shouts.
Before they go to Yonder, Gemma and Tom find a couple of dead bird chicks in the grass underneath a tree. Tom buries them and holds a quasi-spiritual graveside service for them, chanting unintelligibly. When Gemma breaks up laughing, Tom nudges her and tells her, “Show some respect.”
In Yonder, Tom takes to digging in the front yard—hoping the hole will lead to somewhere. Gemma snidely suggests he might dig all the way to Australia. “Or hell,” she says.
“Nah,” Tom answers. “We’re already there.”
Tom and Gemma are not married, but obviously are in the market for a house. We see them have sex in house No. 9—a mass of skin and limbs, but we don’t see anything critical. The boy who has come to live with them watches from the doorway, as if studying them. (Later, when Gemma seems to approach Tom for sex, kissing him passionately, Tom is no longer interested. “Sorry,” he says, as he rolls the other way.)
We see another couple have sex, too. We see movements, as well as the side of her breast and her rear. (Another boy stands in the room, applauding.) A mysterious book features nude (but not particularly explicit) drawings of a man, woman and child, as if to instruct some strange alien race on what humankind should look like. Gemma soaps Tom’s back in the shower, and we see a bit of his behind on screen. Gemma sits on a toilet, revealing a good bit of the side of her hip and leg.
The boy (accidentally or purposefully) knocks Tom over in the street, and Tom seems to hit his head on the curb. Tom, furious, picks up the boy and throws him to the asphalt, but the boy just smiles. Later, Tom locks it in the couple’s car, planning to starve it to death.
People die in the movie, and when they do, they’re unceremoniously zipped up into what look to be bags vacuumed free of air. (One such body-filled bag is folded—the bones breaking audibly—and stuffed in a filing cabinet.) A body lies in a bloody tub of water; the visual insinuation is that the person committed suicide. Someone suffers a blow to the head with a pickaxe and doesn’t like it one little bit. (We see only a little bit of blood, though.)
In a nature vignette, we learn about the cuckoo—a bird that often lays its own eggs in another bird’s nest, so that the unsuspecting “other bird” will raise the cuckoo chick as its own. We see the featherless cuckoo chick push another chick out of the nest, stealing the mother’s attention (and food) all for itself. The carcasses of two baby chicks are later spotted by a child. When Gemma tells the child about what a cuckoo sometimes does—saying it’s just the way things are—the child says, “I don’t like the way things are. They’re terrible.”
A house is set on fire. Someone seems to get sucked into a floor.
We hear nearly 20 f-words (and see a misspelling of the word on a rooftop) and about five s-words. God’s name is misused three times (twice with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused twice. Tom and Gemma aim a crude hand gesture at the boy, who does the same to them right back.
Tom smokes. He tosses one barely smoked cigarette out of the car window as they try to escape Yonder for the first time. By the time the car returns, we see that the cigarette is almost completely ash. He smokes elsewhere, too—often trying to suck in as much tobacco as he can from butts with barely anything left. They seem, in context, one of Tom’s only physical touchstones from a time before Yonder, and as such he treasures each smoke.
As mentioned, Tom and Gemma drink champagne their first night in Yonder. They also reminisce about the first time they saw each other. “You told me that I looked like I needed a drink,” Tom tells her. She needed one, too, and so they drank. And drank some more, apparently.
Dead bodies are treated pretty cavalierly. And, as mentioned, Tom wants to kill something that looks very much like a little boy. Whether Tom was wrong about that … well, in context, that’s a difficult question.
“That boy is always watching,” Gemma tells Tom.
“That’s not a boy,” Tom says.
They pause for a moment.
“Coffee?” Gemma asks.
Vivarium is that sort of movie: Darkly comic and quietly horrible. And while it’s not technically a bad movie, I hated watching it.
You can watch it simply as a high-IQ horror flick, and that’s bad enough. Tom and Gemma find themselves in some sort of alternate-reality suburbia, slowly preyed upon this thing that looks human, but is oh so definitely not. The film pushes the young couple into a terrible, terrifying space—but like the proverbial frog in the kettle, they adapt. They try to make lives for themselves, even as those lives grow ever more intolerable and seem, inexorably, to lead to a place of madness and despair and death. Worse, this horror flick (like the cuckoo) subverts what should be our most sacred and honorable instincts, turning them inside out.
But that leads us to a second, equally awful level: The twisted and (I think) at least partly intentional metaphor that the movie hints at is what parenthood can look like in its darkest days.
Before Yonder, Tom and Gemma are happy. They don’t have it all together yet, but Gemma’s satisfied teaching young students about the wind. Tom plans on buying his own vehicle someday so he won’t have to use Gemma’s. They are free. Independent.
And then comes the call of Yonder, a suburb that feels more like a prison. They welcome a new being into their lives—a strange, demanding creature who screams when he’s displeased, watches far too much television and saps, it would seem, the life and vitality out of his parents. There’s no escape from either it or the new domestic nightmare that surrounds them.
For relief, Tom turns to work—digging an endless hole that leads to nowhere. Gemma focuses on the child, hoping that some good—some answers—can be found. The couple grow apart, torn by their own differing desires on what they should do with their charge, even as that charge—that child—has no thoughts but to further his own well-being.
This story doesn’t just flip the sacred beauty and duty of parenting on its head. It suggests something even more insidious: That parenthood itself can be a trap. That life itself is perhaps meaningless. In this queasy suburbia of Yonder, we find the seeds of nihilism.
“I don’t like the way things are,” the child says, staring at those dead birds pushed out of their nest. “They’re terrible.” Yes, the movie suggests. Things are terrible.
And sometimes, I suppose, that’s true. Tom and Gemma’s situation is terrifically terrible. And even those of us who are raising, or have raised, kids who aren’t evil alien doppelgangers can have it pretty hard at times, too. Parents having a rough go at it may watch Vivarium and say, “Yeah, that’s what it feels like sometimes.”
But the film offers no inkling of hope, no escape, no sense of possible redemption or even hint of what might become it. Nor does it try to illustrate the opposite experience of parenthood: The deep and overflowing joy that children can bring us in the best moments. All in all, Vivarium’s nihlism makes for a very gloomy movie, and a very dispiriting message if you dig any deeper.
The word vivarium, in case you’re wondering, is somewhat analagous to what an aquarium is for fish or a terrarium is for plants. The suggestion is that the suburb of Yonder is a vivarium itself—a habitat created by unknown beings in which to study, and use, humans.
The name has a certain irony attached to it, too. After all, the words springs from the Latin word vivere, which means “to live.” But this grim horror/mystery/comedy is far more about smothering life, in one way or another, than living it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.