Vivarium Ending Explained: It's Not That Complicated

2019 sci-fi thriller "Vivarium" is one of those movies where the premise is interesting enough, but the execution is poor. The ending isn't really difficult to understand, but it does warrant some examination if only because humans are compelled to find meaning in all things, even if those things are ham-fisted sci-fi movies. 

So How Does It End?

In "Vivarium," Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are a young couple with no chemistry whatsoever. In hopes of buying a home, they're lured into a hideous suburban neighborhood by Martin, the world's worst real estate agent. The subdivision is called "Yonder," and it's made up of a seemingly infinite number of hideous green prefab homes. Martin vanishes in the middle of the house tour, and Tom and Gemma find themselves trapped in Yonder, unable to find — or even see — their way out despite their best efforts to escape. Their only aid comes in the form of cardboard boxes left by an unseen force, filled with vacuum-sealed, tasteless food.

Because there is no apparent escape, they eat the food. They make the most of it. Eventually, one of those boxes contains what appears to be a human baby. The instructions on the box are simple: "Raise the child and be released." They quickly realize that this child is not human, as it grows at an alarmingly rapid pace, engages in eerie mimicry, and speaks with a detached, vaguely adult-sounding voice.

Gemma and Tom are not fond of the child, given the circumstances. They greet him with raised middle fingers. Tom flings cigarette butts at him. Gemma frequently says, "I'm not your mommy" whenever the off-putting little pod-person attempts to address her as such.

Eventually, Gemma gives in to her forced maternal role, and Tom becomes a caricature of the detached paternal figure who works himself into an early grave, literally. He becomes absolutely obsessed with digging a hole in the front yard, convinced their salvation lies therein. By the time the child matures into an adult, Tom has grown seriously ill and dies. Gemma dies shortly after, but not before trying to escape and discovering that there are a number of other trapped couples in the same circumstances. Their bodies are buried in the hole Tom spent all his time digging, and their creepy adoptee takes their car and leaves Yonder to go replace Martin at the same real estate office that Tom and Gemma visited at the beginning of the movie. 

Another couple enters the office. The cycle continues.

So What Does It Mean? Literal Edition

At the very start of the film, we see cuckoo birds engaging in "brood parasite" behavior. In certain species of cuckoo birds, the mother will lay her eggs in the nest of a completely different bird species, attempting to force the other bird to raise her offspring. In some cases, the invasive cuckoo chick may even do away with the host bird's babies by ejecting them from the nest. This is depicted when we see the cuckoo chick toss the other hatchlings from their home, sending them plummeting to their demise. I knew that the birds would be a metaphor of sorts, and they were.

When a little girl happens upon the corpses of the baby birds, asking who did this and why. Gemma correctly explains that perhaps it was a cuckoo bird who needed a nest. In response, the child asks why the cuckoos didn't just build their own nest. Gemma replies, "I don't know. That's nature. That's just the way things are."

And that's the very heavy-handed foreshadowing that also explains the ending of "Vivarium." Tom and Gemma are both the forced adoptive parents and the murdered baby chicks, trapped in the nest that is Yonder, made to raise the creepy future Martin so that his species can continue to live. Is there some plan for world domination? Some deeper sinister plot? No. They just do this to survive, apparently. That's just the way things are.

They do this despite the fact that Martin is clearly f***ing weird from the jump, sending out every bad vibe a person can send just short of saying "I am dangerous. Stay away." Unsurprisingly, we learn by the end of the film that, like the child Gemma and Tom are unceremoniously given, Martin is also not human. Whatever species of humanoid creatures he comes from acts much in the same way that the cuckoo birds do: they force parenthood upon unsuspecting human beings for the sake of their own survival. Why? Because that's just the way things are.

Writer-director Lorcan Finnegan has reiterated as much in an interview when asked if the creatures in his film had a specific goal:

"Yeah, just like ours, to Survive. That's it! They don't have a master plan to take over the world or anything. They want to survive, just like we want to survive. If they are successful, they'll breed well, just like humans have."

Oh, and the word vivarium is defined as "an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets." Like the environment Tom and Gemma are trapped in. 

Everything is very on the nose, which wouldn't be so exhausting under different circumstances. So that's the ending explained in a literal sense, but what of the potential symbolism?

So What Does It Mean? Figurative Edition

We can always draw our own meanings and explanations from "Vivarium" and its hopeless ending. We can talk about how the ending could easily be interpreted as a relentlessly cynical commentary on modern society, specifically as it relates to traditional desires and expectations like homeownership, marriage, and starting a family. There just isn't much to say beyond that because "Vivarium" is only interested in presenting a bunch of tired tropes and ideas without doing anything new or entertaining with them.

Gemma seemingly gives in to her natural maternal instincts when caring for the creature-child, which in turn alienates her from Tom, who resents her for giving attention to it. Tom becomes obsessed with his hole-digging "work" as a literal and metaphorical means of escape, unaware that he's digging himself a grave, even though it's so painfully obvious to the viewers, given that we also see Tom digging a grave for two baby birds just a few minutes into the movie. Gemma's willingness to act as a mother to the child can be seen as her undoing, just as Tom's obsessive hole digging and smoking can be seen as his ... except that there was never any way for them to leave once they were trapped inside anyway, so their behavior wouldn't have made a difference.

No matter what Tom and Gemma decided to do, the outcome would have been the same. So what is it that the ending of "Vivarium" is trying to say? A few things come to mind, but they're nothing particularly fresh or compelling.

What if being forced into traditional gender roles can be toxic? It is, and we know that. 

What if you don't really want what you thought you did? People find that out in real life every single day, often without such severe and fatal outcomes. 

What if we can't survive without the natural world? Everything in Yonder is artificial and flavorless, which we already know is not ideal for sustaining human life. 

What if resistance is futile? Then we all die in the end.

We've seen all these things before, and "Vivarium" does nothing to further develop or explore any of them leading up to the inevitable, unsatisfying end, for which there is no meaningful explanation beyond "That's just the way things are."

Birds, Numbers, and Final Thoughts

If you're seeking further explanation for the parasitic, humanoid antagonists in "Vivarium," the answer harkens back to the cuckoo bird parallels. As stated by the film's director:

"I guess there's an avian influence on the whole film. [Laughs] Once we started talking about cuckoos sharing things with other birds, and magpies are certainly annoying black and white birds. They make a horrible kind of rattling sound, and especially when there's a bunch of them around. It's quite aggressive and irritating. So that's how they communicate with each other, their throat sounds. And they make this kind of magpie's rattling sound. And there are more of them, yeah. I mean, there are thousands of them."

If you want to know if there was any significance tied to the number 9 that adorns the front door of the indestructible home in which our ill-fated, one-dimensional protagonists are trapped, Finnegan has an explanation for that too, but it's not a very good one:

"I can't remember now. It's tricky. But to me it's always been, if you imagine drawing the number nine, it's like going into a circle, and it then becomes a loop." 

And that would work if 9 were a perfect, inescapable loop, but it's not. The number 8 is literally right there! I guess it makes sense in the way that "Vivarium" only works if you ignore that there are better movies that do a better job of making meaningful social commentary about the inherent creepiness of American suburbia and the potential trap of giving in to societal expectations.

So that's it. I'm not going to hide the fact that I think "Vivarium" absolutely f***ing sucks. It's the most joyless film I've ever seen. Tom and Gemma are not fun or even interesting to watch because they make a terrible couple, and we don't even get to learn more about their characters, so we don't care about them. There is no hope. There is no suspense. Everything the film is trying to say has been said before, and it's all presented in such a superficial way — as if depicting a thing is just as good as exploring it — that there's nowhere to go, just as there is nowhere for Tom and Gemma to go except towards their inevitable, unsatisfying end. And we get to go there with them.

Tom and Gemma are stupid for going with Martin to begin with when he all but screams that he's not to be trusted. "Vivarium" is a stupid, hollow piece of concentrated cynicism pretending it's something more. 

The "Vivarium" ending explained is that there is no hope in Yonder. Tom and Gemma were doomed from the start. Things just are because they are. There is no escape. There's your explanation. How dreadful.