Can you imagine being trapped inside of your home for days on end, only being able to be with your housemates, unable to leave your house because nothing is open and there’s nothing to do and there is a looming threat of death?
Well most of us by now actually do know what that is like, thanks to shelter-in-place and quarantine orders. But in case you want to relive the claustrophobia, Vivarium, a small horror movie that got lost in the COVID shutdown of theaters, is here to give you just that, except this time with a lot more metaphor and existential wandering!
The movie tells the story of Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots), a young couple who go to look at houses in a suburb called Yonder. When they try to leave the neighborhood, they find themselves driving in circles. There is no exit in the empty, lifeless maze. Gemma and Tom return to the house to find a box of supplies at their doorstep and a baby boy, with only a note saying that they must raise the baby, and only then will they be released.
Vivarium is full of interesting horror imagery and promising ideas, but is devoid of emotion. This is primarily because of our two leads. The film spends little time setting up the characters and their relationship. We only get the vaguest sense of how deep their bond is, or their individual personalities, and the moment the kid comes into their lives, they become stripped of all individual identity. This is because Tom and Gemma are not characters so much as they are archetypes.
They are archetypes for Man and Woman, Father and Mother, Husband and Wife, even Adam and Eve. Vivarium turns out to be a long extended metaphor for parenting, and, specifically, gender roles in parenting. And it’s a pretty bleak one, considering that the characters are stripped of individuality once they become parents and in what the movie shows their roles to be.
First, there is Tom. Tom never bonds with the boy. He goes through the motions of taking care of him, but he won’t even call the child “him;” he calls the child “it.” When he discovers that the grass outside can be dug into, he begins digging day in and day out, hoping it will lead to some kind of escape. It brings Tom a sense of purpose and is initially out of a noble desire to help him and Gemma, but soon it’s clear that nothing will come of it, and the work quickly devolves into an act of selfishness and avoidance. And this big hole he digs? Well, it turns out that Tom is literally digging his own grave. It brings to mind the curse given to Adam in the Garden of Eden:
“‘Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Tom works the ground relentlessly for nothing, and he returns to the ground in death. Tom’s actions speak to the difficulties men struggled with for years- what it really means to be a provider for a family, and the temptations to use work as a self-centered escape from the stresses of family and domestic life. Tom’s desire to protect Gemma is twisted and beaten down until he’s a hollowed-out shell, and he bears the shame of not being able to defend his family from external forces.
Then there is Gemma. While she refuses to call herself the boy’s mother, she quickly reveals a reluctant maternal instinct towards the boy. She protects the boy from Tom and tries to engage and teach him, but she is punished harshly for her efforts. This too echoes the curse upon Eve:
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Like many women, Gemma’s relationship with the boy, her appointed child, is full of strife and suffering. Her well-being becomes codependent on his. She and Tom struggle for power and leadership in their relationship, and Gemma even suffers violence from Tom. The fractured relationship between the two allows for some Freudian implications for Gemma and the boy. At one point the boy spies on Tom and Gemma having sex and later, when Gemma lies down beside the boy one evening, he puts his arm around her in a suggestive manner, while Tom is asleep outside in the hole in the ground. Oedipus much? Again, representing womankind, Gemma carries the weight of the home’s brokenness.
At the end of the film, Tom works himself to death, and Gemma is left alone. When the boy is completely raised, the boy kills her, her usefulness finished. While this is obviously extreme, it isn’t too far from what many women feel as they age and when their children leave the nest- older women are routinely rendered invisible, hit with the double whammy of ageism and sexism in the larger society. They are not seen as being sexually attractive, are no longer marriageable or able to bear and raise children, and are often professionally stunted. So in other words, they have none of the things that our society sees as making a woman worthwhile.
All of this leaves the question that must come with stories that function primarily as allegories or metaphors: what’s the point? Vivarium says that life sucks, we’re stuck with generational sins, the genders will struggle forever for power and domination, you’ll either die from capitalism or social marginalization, and child-rearing is a trial. Oh, and the suburbs are evil. So what?
Simon Abrams expresses this frustration well in his review for the film, saying, “Understood, but who cares? If all you can show me is what you think isn’t genuine, you leave me with zero idea about what you think authenticity looks like, or why I should care.” Vivarium is an interesting watch, to be sure, but because the film doesn’t have any substance outside of its metaphor or anything to root for or offer up as an authentic alternative, then it accomplishes nothing but to reinforce despair. Like we need more of that.