Vivarium review: Ingenious sci-fi horror is gruesomely apt for these troubled times

You can’t get away. You’re stuck at home indefinitely. Food is delivered but it has no taste. You don’t know why this is happening to you or if you’re ever going to escape.

Vivarium is an ingenious, relentless sci-fi horror from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley. It opens with unnerving natural history footage of brood parasitism: a cuckoo chick determinedly ejecting the other chicks from its host nest.

Teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her handyman boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are looking to buy a home together. A peculiarly creepy estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), takes them to a vast, labyrinthine estate of identical, empty houses called “Yonder” and then vanishes. Gemma and Tom try to drive away but find they endlessly circle back to where they started, until they run out of petrol.

They are forced to spend the night in this weird place and in the morning try to walk out, following the sun all day, but end up back where they began again. Meanwhile a box of supplies has mysteriously been delivered outside.

Tom ragingly sets fire to the house but when they wake next day, the house is somehow there again. This time what they have been delivered in a box is an unnatural baby with the instruction “raise the child and be released”.

This boy is a monster. By day 98, he has grown to the size of a seven-year-old (Senan Jennings, wonderfully alien) and he thrives by cruelly imitating his hosts in their actions and speech, when not screaming unbearably in a high monotone to be fed.

Gemma and Tom, until then united (they brush their teeth together!), begin to unravel as a couple. Gemma won’t let Tom starve the boy. Tom begins obsessively to dig in the garden to find out what’s beneath them, saying “This is something I can do.”

Vivarium proceeds inexorably for 97 minutes (Twilight Zone tales ran to 30 with ads). For the viewer, it’s almost as entrapping and oppressive as the nightmare it presents, as it implacably works out its metaphor (or, as it might as well be, its thesis) to the end.

Yet it is beautifully designed and filmed (a shame not to see it on a big screen, as we’re going to be saying for the foreseeable). Essentially a two-hander, it is brilliantly inhabited by Eisenberg (rewardingly cast against nerdy, arrogant type) and Poots, always so riveting with her strange big features, not just her lips but her nose seeming to pout even at rest.

Finnegan (whose debut was forest-horror Without Name) suggests Vivarium is about the way we are enslaved by the dream of home ownership, but it’s actually odder and more elemental than that. A little girl at the start of the film finds the dead chicks the cuckoo has tipped out of the nest. Gemma tells her that’s nature, the way things are. “I don’t like the way things are, it’s horrible,” the girl says. Vivarium is gruesomely more apt now than it was when it was made.