Biosphere

'Jurassic Park' isn't the only film about life finding a way thanks to this cleverly contemplative survival comedy starring Mark Duplass and Sterling K Brown.
Sarah Ward
September 07, 2023

Overview

If an apocalypse ever brings humanity so close to extinction that there might only be two people left, one thing is certain: if that duo is together and can communicate, they'll spend most of their time nattering about nothing. They'll talk. They'll argue. They'll fill the days, months and years by talking and arguing. They'll still be human, in other words, doing what humans do. Biosphere sets up house within this very scenario, and in that exact truth. Here, lifelong pals Billy (Mark Duplass, Language Lessons) and Ray (Sterling K Brown, This Is Us) are the only folks left after the planet has met a catastrophic fate — one that, because he was the US President when things went dystopian, Billy likely had a hand in — and they're now confined to the movie's titular structure. So, they talk. Sometimes, they argue. When first-time feature-length filmmaker Mel Eslyn plunges the audience into this situation, her characters have been talking and arguing, then arguing and talking, for so long that it's just what they do.

Working with a script that she co-penned with Duplass, Eslyn introduces Biosphere's viewers to a self-contained ecosystem of discussing and disagreeing. In the abode designed and built by Ray, a scientist and Billy's former advisor, this pair has no other choice. "Self-contained" perfectly sums up the sensation when the film begins flickering, too — as Ray and Billy go for their daily jog around the sphere, talking and arguing as they trot, their dynamic and their routine is conveyed with such efficiency that it feels like you've been watching for longer than you have. Biosphere doesn't drag, though. Rather, it's excellent at constructing a lived-in world with Billy and Ray as they live through what could be the end of the world. It's ace at storytelling as well, but the talking, the arguing, and the immersive and relatable air all smartly say plenty about a movie that recognises from the outset how adaptable people are.

"Life finds a way", aka pop culture's go-to Jurassic Park quote about resilience and versatility, even gets a mention in Biosphere. Life has clearly found a way to keep Billy and Ray chatting and conflicting like they've always done since childhood — the fact that their banter about Super Mario Bros and other trivial minutiae could be happening anywhere is purposefully meant to linger — but that's not all that Eslyn and Duplass have that famous line of dialogue sum up. Biosphere's narrative gets its drama when tragedy strikes the pond of fish that Billy and Ray have been using for sustenance, then a surprise development makes just as much of an impact. Life again finds a way in a number of manners, in a picture that revels in taking its audience along for the ride. While the second big revelation is easy to predict after the first, Biosphere's commitment to it keeps astonishing.

A question lingers at the heart of this cleverly contemplative survival comedy: if all that was left of humans really was just two buddies shooting the shit and literally running in circles as they live Bio-Dome- and Spaceship Earth-style, how would the species respond? To be accurate, that's just one of many trains of thought in a layered screenplay that gets Duplass again unpacking modern masculinity as 2009 mumblecore entry Humpday did also. Two things couldn't be more important, then: tone and casting, which Eslyn and Duplass patently know. Biosphere is a film about interactions and reactions, after all, which couldn't be more dependent upon the prevailing mood and the players involved. Over and over, the movie's creative hands express and interrogate their ideas not just through the tale they're telling, but through filmmaking's fundamental elements. Again, this is efficient cinema — and effective.

Biosphere's pivotal vibe is loose and light yet tender and compassionate. As writers, Eslyn and Duplass know what to take seriously, what to joke with and about, and how to avoid plummeting their huge twist into extinction. They lean into awkwardness but also hope. With all the talking and arguing, they also understand the rhythms of chatter and silence. None of this should be underestimated, and nor should Eslyn's fine-tuned efforts in bringing this sci-fi setup to the screen. Even the slightest wrong or false move would've punctured the film irreparably. Examining friendship, anxiety, identity and the nature of existence is like erecting and then dwelling in a dome when everything beyond the plastic is always pitch black, with shattering a fragile idyll far easier than maintaining it.

Directing after shorts, TV series Room 104, and producing a swag of Duplass-starring flicks (Your Sister's Sister, The One I Love, Blue Jay, Creep 2, Paddleton and Language Lessons, for instance), Eslyn seems fated to have had cinematographer Nathan M Miller (also Paddleton) and the rest of her crew peer her co-scribe's way. Duplass frequently pens the indie flicks that he's in — solo or with a partner — but he's also excellent as Billy, who starts off as the slacker goof of this two-hander despite his presidential past. Selling the character's complicated journey from there isn't a simple task, but Duplass makes it look as easy and realistic as all the conversation and quarrelling. As the serious and analytical Ray, Brown is just as superbly cast in an equally as complex part. And their chemistry? Any filmmaker with actors who gel this well would have them talking almost non-stop, too.

With its confined setting, lone pair of on-screen talents and dialogue-heavy approach, Biosphere is an economical movie, too, making the utmost of limited resources. Keeping the details about doomsday's coming vague might seem a budget-driven move as a result — neither telling nor showing what happened, nor what lurks beyond other than a growing green light in the sky — but it's also the best choice for the narrative. Why Billy and Ray are in this predicament is far less fascinating than what they do after their world gets domed in. Compared to exploring how humans adapt and cope from the ordinary talking and arguing through to the downright extraordinary, it's even superficial. Diving deeper comes naturally to this end-times comedy, although it does possess a fitting worst trait: loving existing so much that it's unsure about how to end.  

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