Ah, the suburbs. The rec rooms and Formica kitchens and manicured lawns. The cozy suffocating middle-class conformity. The way they once stood for everything that was worth rebelling against. For decades, the suburbs have been the ultimate cheap-shot movie punchline — not just a location but a state of mind, a place to thumb our noses at in films from “The Stepford Wives” to “Desperately Seeking Susan,” from “Heathers” to “Happiness” to “American Beauty.” But you don’t see many righteous suburban comedies anymore — not because the ‘burbs have gone away, but because in the digital age they seem less stultifying than they once did. Today, everyone from suburbanites to urban elites escapes in more or less the same way: through social media or binge-watching or highly informed shopping. The suburbs no longer represent an imitation of life. If anything, they’ve set the template for what life has become.
But it may not be until you see “Vivarium,” a lumberingly sinister Twilight Zone fantasy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, that you realize just how much the suburbs — or, at least, the conventional didactic version of them — have run out of gas as movie fodder. “Vivarium” isn’t a comedy of dehumanization; it’s a starkly minimalist sci-fi parable of dehumanization. But the movie leaves the audience every bit as numb as the characters are supposed to be.
Eisenberg and Poots, who in a different film would make a charming couple, are Tom and Gemma, an American gardener and a British grade-school teacher who aren’t married, but are serious enough to be looking for a place together. They wander into a real-estate office that sells homes in a prefab suburban paradise known as Yonder. The office agent, whose name is Martin (Jonathan Aris), is an absurdly stylized and insinuating geek, like Crispin Glover crossed with Pee-wee Herman. He drives them out to look at a potential home, and the place they arrive at is like a suburb designed by an animator from hell. It’s one identical Monopoly house after another, each one mint-green, with a street lamp and a tiny tree and a short brick wall in front, and an adjoining fenced-in backyard, all extending as far as the eye can see. There isn’t a person or a car in sight, and the clouds are so billowy and cotton-perfect they look like they were painted by Magritte.
Martin gives Tom and Gemma a tour of house #9, and it’s spacious and inviting in a cookie-cutter way. (The painting on the living-room wall is of the house’s exterior.) The two take about five seconds to decide that it’s not for them.
But after a few moments, Martin disappears, stranding Tom and Gemma. And when they hop in their car to drive out of Yonder, they discover there’s no way out. There is simply row after row, street after street, of identical unoccupied homes: a maze of mint-green uniformity, a kind of Kafka zone of repetitive suburban insanity. They drive around trying to get out of the neighborhood, but whichever direction they go in they always end up in front of house #9. Then they run out of gas. They might as well be on a desert island.
A short while later, they find a box on the street, and it’s a package full of food: vacuum-packed shrimp and lamb chops, cardboard boxes of milk. So they haven’t just been stranded in Yonder. They’re being kept there. And then another box arrives. It’s got a baby in it. They’re a family now! Can you say: How did I get here?
I’m a major fan of “The Twilight Zone,” but as even Jordan Peele has learned, there’s a reason that the fabled original episodes were only half an hour long (probably 23 minutes if you boil out the commercials). Introduce the concept, hold it up to light and play with it, and then…get out. But Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley, the director and screenwriter of “Vivarium,” are way too enamored of their concept to let go of it. They’ve got one or two tricks up their sleeve, but that’s about it, and what they’ve created is a movie that doesn’t pretend to have character development. It’s all bluntly eerie on-the-surface metaphor. Except that the only meaning we can read into the movie is that the suburbs (alert the media!) are homogenized and deadening.
Tom and Gemma are stuck, and that baby soon grows into an icky boy of around 10, who screams, mimics what the two of them say (in an annoyingly uncanny impersonation of their voices), and then screams some more. We start to notice that the boy bears an eerie resemblance to Martin the real-estate agent. But he’s never more than a pest.
So what’s the point? Finnegan pokes the story along with little tropes, like Tom trying to find a way out by digging a quixotic hole in the front yard. The movie flirts with the idea that Gemma, confronted with a child, taps into her maternal impulse — but the kid is so loathsome that even that “complication” withers on the vine. “Vivarium” has a canny visual design (you won’t soon forget the rows of Monopoly houses), but the movie becomes an example of the imitative fallacy. It makes the audience feel deadened too.