(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz)
Survival films have been subject to predictability for as long as I can remember, to the point of routine rinse and repeat. There are only so many ways one can spin a hero’s mission to face a greater threat in order to save themselves. So where is the spice? Maybe it is what’s not happening on the outside, but the inside that matters more. Wait no longer if one is looking for a unique change of pace, because first time director, long time producer Mel Eslyn has finally found the answer. Directing alongside her notorious collaborators, the Duplass brothers, Biosphere adds a dystopian spin to a buddy quest for survival, swinging strong and staying enjoyable through and through.
We open on a homely, simple and minimally furnished dome, where close friends Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling K. Brown) shelter in place from a toxic outside environment. As we listen in on their friendly banter, we learn that Billy used to be president, and Ray was his advisor up until some sort of doomsday struck. One night, the last female fish in their aquarium (built to keep life inside their dome sustainable) dies, meaning that Billy and Ray’s days are now numbered… That is until one of their male fish starts to exhibit some abnormal symptoms. Ray uses his smarts to study the fish, and wakes Billy up in excitement upon discovering that the fish is undergoing a bizarre metamorphosis as a desperate survival mechanism! A resulting ripple effect leads the two buddies to grapple with the uncertainties of their scientific breakthrough… Might this be the answer to how they save humanity? All the while, mysterious events from the void that lures beyond their shelter only puts further pressure on their mission for survival.
Using their minimally-furnished dome as a stage, the chemistry between Sterling and Duplass shines beyond the biosphere. They play off of each other fantastically, and through their performances, one can feel the comfort they have acquired for one another from years of containment, with their unique conversations about the Mario Bros., “secret sauce,” and bowling balls acting as a testament to that. While those ideas all sound like hodgepodge when put together, there is a surprising amount of truth behind them that goes a long way. Their unique dialogue and meandering conversation style sells their quirky yet lovable characters, making an outlandish premise much more believable than one would expect.
The left-field humor and dreary visual aesthetic are both tied together with a booming acapella soundtrack, delivering a whimsically haunting auditory experience. The in-tune vocals add an eerie aesthetic to the otherwise homely living space, and complement the desolate premise in an ethereal way, as if there is something more luring beyond the walls of the story other than Billy and Ray. Odd, yet above all successful, this unconventional yet fitting choice is one of many examples of how Eslyn pays conscious attention to every aspect of her production.
While the ride throughout the first and second acts are surely amusive, the sudden and short-lived third act feels like it cuts the experience short. It is almost as surprising as the narrative itself; I foresee it being the audience’s biggest gripe. Bringing Billy and Ray closer to the outside world could have further elevated the ideas of its narrative to be as monumental as the catastrophe that precedes it. Although I was left wishing for more, the stopping point manages to envelope a persisting metaphorical underbelly. Still, an extra ten minutes and a stronger sense of adventure could have left us with something more mind blowing and memorable for the masses.
Any other imperfections that a critic may feel inclined to magnify in a review felt secondary to a masterfully crafted story. Using a weird, unique flavor of humor to pull the audience in, an enticing and original plot persists and seamlessly flows from one beat to the next. One may nitpick that some line deliveries are so exaggerated that they feel performed, but it is hard not to be thinking about what may happen next instead. From a writing standpoint, there is also a large dissonance between Billy’s lackadaisical demeanor and his former presidency. Even so, this adds a burden of past and present responsibilities on our characters that resurfaces and accelerates the conflict further.
This is an example of how writers Mark Duplass and Mel Eslyn implement purpose into every line of their screenplay, reminding us why strong storytelling is arguably one of, if not, the most important element of filmmaking. Not only can it capture a viewer’s undivided attention for hours at a time, but also teach us something about our society at large. A modern relevance is deeply ingrained in Biosphere’s narrative, with themes elaborating on the difficulty of accepting one’s identity, and the simultaneous confusion and confidence surrounding such change. Who would have thought that such wisdom could come from two men bantering about in a tiny pod? Depending on how one interprets it, the gendered subtext can be divisive or successful, but above all, focuses on using entertaining punches in order to educate. I applaud how they were cleverly able to make such critical messages accessible for a wide audience.
The publicly available synopsis for Biosphere is relatively short in comparison to other films, but try not to fall victim to curiosity and go into this one blind, as that is how it is best experienced. One will find themselves coming for the dystopian premise and staying for the delightful absurdity. I definitely see myself sharing this with others as well in the future, and am excited for the eventual release so that I can see the reactions and theorycrafting unfold.
Free yourself from containment and go watch Biosphere in theaters on July 7th. Stuck in a dome like Billy and Ray? Worry not: one can look forward to a VOD release on the same date.