Apocalyptic Comedy Biosphere Prompts Big, Hopeful Questions

Movies Reviews Sterling K. Brown
Apocalyptic Comedy Biosphere Prompts Big, Hopeful Questions

It makes a lot of sense that in Mel Eslyn’s feature debut Biosphere, the last two people left on Earth after the apocalypse are Billy (Mark Duplass), the most recent U.S. president, and Ray (Sterling K. Brown), the head honcho’s life-long best friend/trusted advisor. It would also make sense to want to avoid them; most rational, hierarchy-hating individuals would rather face the noxious toxins of a scorched planet that spend 106 minutes listening to the fears and desires of two dudes who almost certainly had a hand in the fall of civilization. Yet Billy and Ray immediately endear themselves to viewers, recounting Mario fan theories and decades-old drama that recruits even the most hardened of anti-American cynics into their bro-y camaraderie. This isn’t your usual capsule film about how two people cope with the encroaching end of humanity, though. Weirdly (and rather beautifully), it’s a story about the proliferation of life despite, say, some initial biological setbacks.

The cause of the apocalypse is never explicitly stated, but it’s clear that something has made Earth’s atmosphere inhospitable to life. There must have been some warning that such an event might occur, because Billy notes early on that he commissioned Ray to engineer an air-tight, self-sustaining shelter during his presidency. When the film opens, Billy and Ray have adjusted to life in the biosphere after an indeterminate amount of time — weeks, months, years? — by maintaining a general routine. They run around the perimeter each morning (engaging in locker room banter as they sweat), typically followed by Billy retiring to a dinky yellow couch to play video games while Ray tends to the fragile ecosystem of plants and fish that keep them alive.

During one of Ray’s routine checks, he discovers that the last female in their tank has died, and as such their food supply will dwindle rapidly. Billy immediately panics, but Ray begins to notice something fascinating: one of the male fish begins to change shape and color, signaling the possibility of sequential hermaphroditism. In other words, the male fish is turning female in order to fill the reproductive role now absent in the tank. Befuddled by the immediacy of such a change in biology, the pair are nonetheless ecstatic that death is no longer imminent. But when one of the men begins to notice staggering changes to his own body, questions of gender, sex and procreation eventually arise, making things a tad awkward for a lifelong best friendship predicated on cisgender heterosexuality. Once initial hesitations subside, however, the bond between the two transforms and strengthens into something wonderfully unexpected.

With a script co-written by Eslyn and Duplass, Biosphere retains the distinct brand of organic conversational comedy that’s been present in the duo’s collaborative crossover for the past nearly 15 years. (Eslyn originally met Duplass and Lynne Shelton while working on their 2009 film Humpday, and is now the president of Duplass Brothers Productions.) While Biosphere and Humpday in particular both deal with the social construct of sexuality and the consequences (and potential joys) of eschewing these stark labels, Eslyn’s effort is able to heighten this investigation through a sci-fi lens and static setting, leaving society behind to engage in a narrative experiment that could only exist with such complete destruction of American social and political mores.

To that point, the film feels on par with a successful stage play, especially as it pertains to the filmmaker’s utilization of a single location and ability to generate intense chemistry from the two actors involved. The story unfolding between characters who’ve known each other deeply since well before their pseudo-imprisonment coaxes the necessary passion out of each player – and it undoubtedly helps that co-writer Duplass is one of these principal characters, especially as his character lashes out against physical and emotional tumult while Ray attempts to rationalize the transformation of body and brotherhood. Brown is a perfect scene partner for Duplass, imbuing subtle grace into his characters’ movements and dialogues, a perfect contrast to Billy’s frenetic tendencies.

Megan Fenton’s production design is well worth highlighting, with Christine Brandt’s art direction and Samantha Bowling’s set decoration all working in tandem to create an environment that’s both sparse and lived-in. Remnants of the old world – Billy’s presidential portrait, Ray’s book collection, old video games – are both drab and nostalgic, precious only in their salvation from overwhelming material loss. Again, the staging of the biosphere is evocative of a theatrical production, with each prop and set piece intentionally inserted to add further context to the characters’ past plans and current personhood. DP Nathan M. Miller’s camera may rove and capture far more than audience members’ wandering gaze at a play, but the project feels solidly entrenched in the kinetic, emotionally rousing spirit of live performance.

Eslyn’s directorial turn is nevertheless confident and sharp on a cinematic level, born from an extensive collaboration with Duplass (and that broader filmic circle) that coaxes genuine curiosity from the ordinary crevices of human perspective and experience. Biosphere’s interrogation of gender, sexuality and biology isn’t some cheap, thoughtless ploy to speak to any semblance of a “current moment,” but rather begs deeper questions about the precarious nature of human life. More aptly, Eslyn’s film asserts that humanity’s future survival – and potentially its only hope – relies on a shift in our collective thinking regarding who we are and how we can help each other.

Director: Mel Eslyn
Writer: Mel Eslyn, Mark Duplass
Stars: Mark Duplass, Sterling K. Brown
Release Date: July 7, 2023

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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