“Biosphere” – A safe place? [MOVIE]

Sterling K. Brown as Ray and Mark Duplass as Billy. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

“Biosphere” is that rare creature that has only two characters and a fixed set, common in theater and rare on film. It is unusual for film because, unlike theater, movies are primarily a visual medium, less dependent on the words, relying much more heavily on action driving the narrative. Amazingly, “Biosphere” succeeds on more levels than not. The single set, a geodesic dome, is inhabited by the last two humans on what we come to surmise is a recently uninhabitable earth.

Mark Duplass as Billy and Sterling K. Brown as Ray. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Ray and Billy, best friends since childhood, have both too little and too much to occupy their minds. Jogging around the confines, and by that I mean confined, of their quarters, they banter back and forth. It doesn’t take long to realize who the brains of this operation are. Ray, a brilliant scientist, took a different path in life from his best friend Billy. His loyalty never wavered even as their political differences widened. Still, recriminations are at a minimum in their relationship, although the blame rests solely on the shoulders of one. Lucky for Billy, Ray has equipped this haven, protected securely from the toxic atmosphere beyond their walls and windows, with the necessities of life. Granted, as Billy continually points out, the reading material skews toward Ray’s interests and understanding, but, in a concession to Billy there are plenty of video games. Ray has shown a willingness to throw an occasional game of chess to his friend, but Billy recognizes it for the patronizing effort being made. He may be rather dumb in a lot of areas, but he’s not stupid.

Their hydroponic garden is thriving, providing them with healthy veggies and a means to keep the carbon dioxide levels stable. Ray equipped their tub-like pond stocked with fish for their protein source but trouble is on the horizon. The fish are mysteriously dying and they are down to their last three when one of them expires. Billy, concerned, wants to know whether the deceased is Sam or Diane. Ray reluctantly admits it’s Diane, the last female in the group. “I guess Sam and Diane were never meant to be together,” snarks Billy with a “Cheers” reference, until the implications of her loss hit him in the face.

Skirting constantly around the elephant in the room, Ray places the ultimate blame on Billy. It’s not so much their impending starvation but the root cause. Billy, we discover, was, for a brief period of time, the President of the United States. His may not have been the only finger on the button but it was definitely one that contributed to the death of civilization as was once known. The only smart move he ever made, and it was inadvertent, was hiring his best friend, a lifelong Democrat who valued personal loyalty over that of a party, and then removing him from the advisors’ circle by relegating him to what was assumed to be a useless and unnecessary endeavor —an “end of days” shelter. His counsel might have been better used in the circle but his talents are what has kept them alive so far.

Sterling K. Brown as Ray and Mark Duplass as Billy. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

But what of their omnipresent doom? The hope sleeps with the fishes, to use a metaphor from “The Godfather.” Something remarkable and evolutionary may be happening. Ray notes that a biological change is beginning to occur with the two surviving males, the not entirely unlikely transformation of male into female. This leads to a plethora of “what if” questions and that is where I’ll leave you because this entertaining film surprises with its depth, humor and intelligence. 

Mel Eslyn, director, wrote this screenplay with Mark Duplass and successfully enlivened what could have been a static talkie between two characters in a confined space and gave it enough forward motion that you are continually surprised by the questions that are asked and the answers that are given. It’s delightfully philosophical, something that in other hands might have been deadly.

Like the best Sci-Fi, “Biosphere” has an air of plausibility that sucks you into the discussions and the dilemma. It is, quite frankly, the two men who play Ray and Billy that make this as believable as it is, even when it seems to step into the twilight zone. Mark Duplass, Billy, is a prolific producer with many writing credits. As an actor, he’s usually the bride’s maid and rarely the bride in his better movies. Here he is the bride, you’ll understand the double meaning of this reference when you see the film. Sympathetic, loopy, not quite as dumb as you think and definitely not as smart as he thinks, Billy undergoes a gradual transformation of understanding as the film progresses. As different as his character can be from Ray, he still is able to sell his dependence and respect for his best friend.

I have long been a fan of Sterling K. Brown, Ray, having seen him on stage in “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “Father Comes Home from the Wars;” and appreciated him on the big screen as well as his numerous television appearances, not the least of which was his Emmy winning turn in “This is Us.” He gives depth to anything he is in and elevates the performances of all around him. His role in “Biosphere” would have been untenable for almost anyone else. No matter how outlandish the scenario, he makes it believable; you will follow him anywhere. Sympathetic, empathetic, warm, intelligent, there aren’t enough words to describe how he portrays this unlikely character. If there is only one reason to see this film (and there are, actually, several), he would be it.

The script is excellent and all of the production values are terrific. The production design lets you live inside this dome with the two characters. The camera is constantly moving; there is no feeling of claustrophobia, remarkable as that may sound. 

Truly this two-handed movie gives the viewer a lot to think about, both the real and the unreal. Getting to know both men, survivors of an apocalypse in which one of them may have had a hand, is a pleasure.

Opening July 7 at the Landmark Nuart and Alamo Drafthouse Downtown.


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