Producers: John McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy   Director: Lorcan Finnegan   Screenplay: Garret Shanley   Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris, Senan Jennings and Eanna Hardwicke   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade:  C

Production designer Philip Murphy is certainly to be congratulated for the weirdly cartoonish look he brings to the better part of Lorcan Finnegan’s sci-fi film, especially since the world he’s devised undoubtedly had to be fashioned on a relatively modest budget.  And MacGregor’s widescreen cinematography captures Murphy’s work with crystalline clarity.

While the visuals are impressive, however, Garret Shanley’s screenplay leaves a good deal to be desired, stretching a rather thin premise out to an unduly protracted ninety-eight minutes, and Finnegan and his cast can’t sustain the unsettling mood for the duration.

A prologue set in the “real world” serves to introduce the story’s basic theme—parenthood.  Gemma (Imogen Poots) is a teacher who commiserates with a young student who finds a couple of dead fledglings on the school grounds, apparently fallen (or pushed) from their nest.  Her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), the campus landscaper, buries the birds.

The two then go off house-hunting, and find a near-empty showroom manned by a strangely stiff, socially maladroit agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris), who’s representing a development called Yonder.  He offers to lead them out to the subdivision, and despite his peculiarity they follow him there in their car.  The place turns out to be a vast assemblage of identical houses, all boxy structures colored a sickly pea-green, arranged in seemingly endless rows.  He shows them inside one—Number 9—and during the awkward tour of the place abruptly disappears.  The poor couple try to leave for home, but repeatedly get lost driving around the otherwise deserted development, always arriving back at No. 9, where their car finally runs out of gas.

Gemma and Tom have no choice but to spend the night in the house, and their stay is extended as boxes of food and other necessities arrive on the street outside.  Then after more futile efforts to escape, a box arrives with an infant inside, along with a note promising their release if they raise the boy.  They have no choice but to acquiesce.

The remainder of “Vivarium”—the word means a place where animals are kept in semi-natural conditions for observation (in Latin, it originally meant a park or fish pond)—shows the couple’s psychological deterioration as they “parent” their charge, a Martin-esque creature that grows at unnatural speed and learns to simulate human behavior—not terribly well—by mimicking them, especially their conversation (including their increasingly rancorous arguments).  As a youngster (Sennan Jennings), he’s extremely demanding, screaming like a banshee when his wants aren’t immediately fulfilled and often watching the strange images that swim on the TV screen; when grown (Eanna Hardwicke), he’s remote, even contemptuous of his “parents,” and eventually goes off during the day for mysterious instruction, eventually locking them out of the house.

Gemma copes somewhat better with the situation, with her maternal instinct occasionally seeming to creep in, though she adamantly refuses to be called the boy’s mother.  By contrast Tom becomes surly, even threatening, to his “son,” and starts digging a hole in the yard which he believes will reveal some underground control center.  What he finds after what must be many weeks of work is something else entirely, and leads back to where the couple’s misguided odyssey began.

The visual side of the film, with pinkish clouds in the sky setting off the rows of empty green houses, below, has a luscious artificiality, and MacGregor’s compositions create a properly eerie effect.  Under Finnegan’s hand the cast is also fine.  Poots is the stronger of the central pair, having a wide range of emotion to convey; Tom quickly grows haggard, and Eisenberg can’t invest him with much energy.  Aris, Jennings and Hardwicke all manage to capture the weirdness of the would-be human interlopers, with young Jennings particularly on target, but their act does get a bit tedious after awhile. 

Special effects are fairly sparse, but those toward the close work well enough.  By then, however, your attention is likely to be flagging, the result of Tony Cranstoun’s sometimes sluggish editing and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s droning score.

And, of course, a script that might have worked nicely at an hour or so, but at feature length merely encourages you to observe that ultimately the movie doesn’t go much of anywhere, and does so too slowly.  “Vivarium” is an ambitious near-miss.