Rod Serling would have loved 2020.
In many ways, 2020 is the world that Serling predicted in his landmark television series “The Twilight Zone” – a world full of driverless cars, flat-screen TVs, increasingly human-like robotics and government surveillance.
But there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed since “The Twilight Zone” first aired on CBS between 1959 and 1964. A lot of the issues that Serling preached about on his show- the dangers of conformity, the dark cloud of racism, the overreach of a totalitarian government- all feel as timely now as they did back in the 1960s.
In other words, there are still stories to tell in this world. That explains why 2020 has given us not only the second season of an honest-to-goodness “Twilight Zone” reboot series on CBS All Access but also some feature-length stories that feel a bit like long-lost stand-alone “Twilight Zone” episodes.
Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut “The Vast of Night” on Amazon Prime borrowed the “Twilight Zone” format for a tale of an alien invasion in New Mexico. And now Prime is also streaming Lorcan Finnegan’s “Vivarium,” which like “Twilight Zone” in its prime, uses sci-fi and horror to not only terrify but make a social statement.
“Vivarium,” like many a “Twilight Zone” episode before it, has a hook that is enjoyably clever and also deceptively simple. Tom and Gemma (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, respectively) are house hunting. An estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris, effortlessly creepy) tells them of a new development called Yonder.
Yonder is a marvelous piece of suburbia where dozens of identical green houses line the streets in perfect formation. Even nature behaves – there is no wind and all the clouds are perfectly formed like the clouds on the wallpaper of Andy’s room in the “Toy Story” films.
But beware the perfect home. There are problems in Yonder too. Neither Tom nor Gemma can get a cell signal, for example, and although Martin assures them that properties in Yonder are selling quickly, there isn’t a neighbor in site.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Yonder is that the streets are literally endless- an unnavigable labyrinth. And once Martin abandons them, Tom and Gemma, despite their best efforts, just can’t find their way out.
But one day, a box arrives on their doorstep with a child inside. “Raise the child and be released,” the instructions say.
This is all good stuff, even before the rather obvious revelation that neither the child nor Martin are technically human. And if the film never moves from a sense of general unease to genuine terror, there is still plenty to appreciate in “Vivarium”- mainly the production values and the design of Yonder itself.
The neighborhood is a marvelously trippy triumph of production design and one that recalls the stylized suburbias of early Tim Burton pictures like “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” while being distinctly its own. The production design team led by Phillip Murphy deserves all sorts of praise for their contributions, which elevate “Vivarium” above standard sci-fi fare.
But what makes Yonder really scary is what it symbolizes – a sort of forced domestication that strips Tom and Gemma of their humanity and distinctiveness. And while I’m not sure I agree with Finnegan’s central premise that there is no greater horror than raising a kid, living in the suburbs and working a 9-5 job, I can at least appreciate that he’s trying to make a film about something. And I’m sure that Serling, who spent much of his time on “Twilight Zone” opining the danger of losing yourself- to greed, to paranoia, to conformity- would approve.
“Vivarium” is not an especially complicated film – neither in its themes nor its execution of them- and it’s easy to wonder if it may have worked better as a television episode than as a feature film. The film (rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity) can feel bloated at times, and it treads over the same points again and again – much like Tom and Gemma wandering around Yonder.
Eisenberg and Poots do their best, but they’re not given a whole lot to play. Tom and Gemma, like most “Twilight Zone” characters, are rather thin and underdeveloped. They exist less as recognizable humans, and more as people that the story can happen to.
So, no, it’s not perfect. But, for what it is, “Vivarium” is effective and unsettling in the best “Twilight Zone” tradition. And although Serling has been gone for over 45 years now, it’s nice to see that his tradition of socially conscious sci-fi lives on in the work of filmmakers like Finnegan.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.