This intriguing mumblecore sci-fi seriocomedy stars Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown as the last two humans living out their days in isolation when strange changes start to take shape.
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If you’re not familiar with mumblecore, it’s a loosely defined subgenre of indie films that is usually quite silly, but often has quite serious observations to make. They’re ostensibly comedies but nearly always have moments where you’re taken aback by the sheer bracing humanity infused into the storytelling.
They’re typified by very naturalistic acting and dialogue, often at least partially improvised, plus micro-sized budgets and carefully bookended settings and casts.
“Biosphere” is what I’d call a mumblecore science fiction film. It starts out very goofy and satirical, and by the end you feel an incredible emotional pull toward the two characters, who are living out there days in the titular habitat after some vague calamity has befallen the Earth.
It co-stars Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Mel Eslyn, and it’s a Duplass Brothers production — basically the patron saints of mumblecore. (Though I should note Mark’s brother, Jay, is not on the creative team for this film.) Sterling K. Brown is his counterpart.
Duplass and Brown play Billy and Ray, respectively, who in addition to being possibly the only two surviving people have been best friends since an early age. As they make their daily rounds about the biosphere — eating, exercising, monitoring the apparatus, reading and playing video games — there’s an easy camaraderie between them, the sort of secret language bordering on telepathy that only comes from decades of affinity.
It’s pretty clear from the outset that Ray is the brains of the operation. We learn early on that he designed and built the biosphere, and he often stays up late poring through books and researching ways to extend their state of living. Billy jokes that he’s the Mario and Ray is the Luigi of their little brotherly enterprise, borrowing from their favorite video game, but he recognizes that Ray has the “special sauce” that makes everything run… literally.
I’m no scientist, but I’ll just say the little set-up they have to sustain themselves seems rather skimpy to feed and oxygenate two grown men. It consists of a large bathtub connected to a tabletop vegetable garden. Fish swimming in the “pond,” as they call it, feed the plant life which in turn feeds them.
Though the time frame is never explicitly stated, we get the sense they have been living in this setting for several years. As you might expect, they’re beginning to get on each other’s nerves and miss having other people around.
Lately the fish have been dying off one by one and Billy is worried. Ray is the sort to tell others not to fret, but even he is rattled when the lone surviving female, named Diane, kicks off. He had been hoping they would procreate and new generations of fish would keep them stocked in lettuce and tomatoes indefinitely.
Two events coincide right after this: a strange green dot appears in the perpetually dark sky outside the biosphere and gradually grows bigger. And Woody, one of the two remaining male fishes, morphs into a female. (The fish were named after the “Cheers” cast.) Ray and Billy are dumbfounded, and overjoyed.
I can’t describe what happens next without ruining the story. Suffice to say that strange changes begin happening around the biosphere that will threaten their friendship, and indeed their chances of survival. Billy and Ray must learn to reshape the relationship they’ve sustained for so long, or face extinction.
It turns out that despite their closeness, the two have long-standing resentments buried just beneath the surface that come to the fore. Billy feels like Ray carries an air of superiority since he’s a brilliant scientist and it’s his knowledge that’s keeping them alive. Ray is still obsessed with magic trick involving a bowling ball from his 8-year-old birthday because Billy refuses to accept it as real.
I think that’s the theme of “Biosphere” — learning to take a leap of faith and accept the changes that will happen to us throughout life, even when we did not expect or want them. Both Ray and Billy, despite their strong bond, have to find ways to evolve in this cloistered little society they’ve built.
Brown and Duplass both give textured performances that bounce between going for a laugh and winding up a dramatic punch. We find things out about their characters we never would have predicted, and pivot between being amused and stunned. (Billy’s job right before the cataclysm is a pretty big shocker.)
Eslyn keeps the camera gliding around the confined space in a slow, almost dance-like pattern, varying the style according to how the two people are feeling. So at times it’s a very claustrophobic setting, and other times very cozy and comfortable.
I also enjoyed the odd musical accompaniment by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which consists entirely of human voices singing in wordless, pulsed beats of tone, sometimes accompanied by finger snaps. It sounds almost like electronica, in contrast to its entirely organic origin.
I apologize if this review seems overly vague. “Biosphere” is one of those movies you can’t describe too closely in transmitting your opinion of it, lest you spoil it for everyone else. It’s wryly funny and yet very empathetic, even if it requires some herculean suspension of disbelief.