Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films
by Steven Warner Featured Film Genre Views

Biosphere — Mel Eslyn

July 11, 2023

Sci-fi-tinged two-hander Biosphere is the latest offering from Mr. Mumblecore himself, Mark Duplass, who not only stars, but also co-wrote the script with director Mel Eslyn. His fingerprints are evident on nearly every aspect of the film, from the overly verbose characters to the too-twee-by-half a cappella score to the grounded handling of arguably sensationalistic material. Even the fact that the film opens with onscreen text that reads “Once upon a time…” should clue viewers in to the potential artsy preciousness about to be unleashed. Yet Biosphere, much like the majority of Duplass’ projects, goes down far easier than it should, thanks in large part to solid work in front of the camera from Duplass and co-star Sterling K. Brown, along with an emotional earnestness whose cumulative power proves nearly impossible to resist come film’s end. 

Duplass and Brown star as Billy and Ray, two regular dudes who, as the movie opens, are discussing the intricacies of the relationship between video game siblings Mario and Luigi. As is soon revealed, Billy and Ray are living in the titular dome in some unknown point in the future, where an apocalyptic event involving the Earth’s atmosphere has killed every single person on the Earth save for Billy and Ray, who are surviving because of the latter’s knowledge of science and engineering. Billy, meanwhile, is the dunderhead, failing to understand half of the words that come out of Ray’s mouth and prone to whining and panic attacks. Best friends since childhood, their yin-and-yang approaches to life seem to be the glue holding this specific relationship together, helping them weather thick and thin, which apparently included Billy’s 14-month stint as President of the United States, wherein his actions seemingly caused the end of civilization as we know it. 

In other words, there are some long-buried resentments lurking between the two, and an already stressful situation appears to reach its breaking point when the pair’s lone female fish dies suddenly, ensuring an end to the food supply. Yet, as both Billy and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park are wont to say, life finds a way, leading to a major plot development, the repercussions of which Biosphere details in ways both clever and obvious. That particular twist arrives fairly early in the film, but it’s no good revealing it here, as its unveiling makes for genuinely pleasurable viewing. But the thing is, once this wrinkle is introduced, it doesn’t take long to deduce where the plot is headed, ironically leaving the remainder of the film to proceed as a bit of a “duh.” The same can be said for its thematic preoccupations, as Eslyn and Duplass are clearly spinning an allegory on gender roles in the 21st century, specifically the degree to which they have evolved, and the impact of adaptation in regards to human relationships vs. cultural and social normatives. Fair enough, but the filmmakers fail to trust their viewers, over-explicating every talking point to the point of tedium — keep in mind that those viewers who would benefit from being spoon-fed this film’s particular message probably aren’t all that interested in engaging with it. 

Still, Biosphere remains eminently watchable thanks to its two leads, who imbue so much goodwill and humanity into their characters — and share such delightful chemistry — that it encourages a surprising amount of emotional investment in their journey, even as it offers little in the way of novelty after the initial setup. Brown is an actor of enviable screen presence, a force of nature even in quiet moments, and it’s nice to see him given the chance to flex his acting muscles — evinced in such varied work as Waves and Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. — that elsewhere felt all but atrophied in the likes of The Predator and The Rhythm Section. Duplass, meanwhile, holds his own across from Brown, the ease of collaboration between the two actors essential to mitigating Biosphere’s more tired elements — it’s undeniably disappointing to watch the giddy surprises give way to obvious plot developments. Thankfully, the filmmakers at least manage to recover for  a gut-punch ending. The path there isn’t always the smoothest or the freshest, but the pair we have as our consummate guides at least ensure the time spent with them remains mostly worthwhile.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27