Review: Biosphere Tackles the Apocalypse, plus Gender Politics and Reproductive Rights, with Humor and Originality
For many years, Mel Eslyn has been president of Duplass Brothers Productions, one of the most prolific indie film companies in existence. But the new sci-fi/dramedy Biosphere marks Eslyn’s directing debut (she also co-wrote with Mark Duplass), and it’s a bit of an unexpected and deeply felt ride about two lifelong best friends who also happen to be the last people on Earth. Presumably set in the not-too-distant future, the film tells the story of Billy (Duplass), who was, until recently, the president of the United States, and Ray (Sterling K. Brown), a scientist and researcher who saw the end of the world coming and made a self-sustaining biosphere to help survive it.
Although we’re never told exactly what happened to the rest of the planet, there is some indication that either Billy had something to do with it or didn’t do more to save more people. Whatever the case, Ray is the reason the two are still living, and their small biosphere is now their home until the end of time…or their time, at least. They have a few creature comforts—movies, video games, books—and enough plants, canned goods, and even a stock of live fish to sustain them. But when their fishpond population unexpectedly dwindles to its last two males, Ray realizes that their time in the biosphere is almost up without the essential protein supplied by the fish.
But then life finds a way when one of the male fish suddenly transitions into a female, as if it knew that its species depended on it. Although certain species can adapt and switch genders, even Ray is shocked by this example of rapid evolution. It means the two men have a second chance—that is, until they spot a small, green-glowing light in the night sky. They aren’t quite sure what it is or when it will arrive or whether it’s connected to what destroyed the planet, but as a new panic sets in, Billy begins feeling strange to the point where he can’t get out of bed. And when we find out what exactly is wrong with him, it turns out that evolution isn’t just being kind to the fish, a fact that causes a genuine shift in the dynamic of this friendship and in life within the biosphere.
Biosphere isn’t attempting to convince anyone that this scenario is possible; that is hardly the point. But once Billy’s transformation becomes more noticeable, discussions about gender roles, politics, identity, and yes, even reproductive rights move into the spotlight, thought not in a preachy manner that would have turned this into an issue-oriented film. The mission of this movie is mostly to generate laughs. It’s clear early on that Billy was a terrible Republican president, while Ray was a registered Democrat who stayed friends with Billy despite his leanings. So to have to consider the thoughts and issues of both genders within these close confines, things certainly shift.
The results are mixed, like an edgy Twilight Zone episode, partly chaotic, sometimes toxic, certainly incendiary. The worst thing they had to deal with before was boredom and fish dying; now the fish are repopulating, so what about the humans? Biosphere is a somewhat wild ride that turns into a moving story of a lasting friendship that is itself still evolving with the times and circumstances. You’ll have to suspend disbelief about a great many biological matters with this film, but the more emotionally driven aspects of the story are fairly authentic. It’s a messy movie but one that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, anchored by two performers selling these characters beautifully (knowing the way Duplass works, I’m guessing a lot of the dialogue is improvised, which I have no issues with). If you want something different, search no longer.
The film is now playing in a limited theatrical run and is available via VOD from IFC Films.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.