Post-apocalyptic survival meets the anxious buddy humor of Humpday in Biosphere, a mysterious and hilarious pic that really can’t be discussed much without saying things a prospective viewer would be better off not hearing. (No spoilers here.) What can be said is that this directing debut from Mel Eslyn, collaborator with the Duplass brothers and frequent producer for the late Lynn Shelton, is a one-location two-hander in which excellent performances are matched by hand-in-glove chemistry, directed with an assured sense of comic timing and storytelling economy. Sure to make some viewers very uncomfortable, it uses its more out-there elements to cheerfully highlight (maybe unintentionally) the absurdity of hope for humanity in our current, pre-apocalyptic reality.
Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass play lifelong friends who find themselves living in a geodesic-dome shelter with the world seemingly dead outside (read: total blackness, not even a parched landscape visible through the windows). Some of the reasons for this will remain mysterious, but the hints dropped in the screenplay (written by Eslyn and Duplass) may be better than a full explanation, as they leave us free to incorporate our own most-likely doomsday scenarios.
The Bottom Line
Intriguing, entertaining and sometimes hilariously uncomfortable.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Sterling K. Brown, Mark Duplass
Director: Mel Eslyn
Screenwriters: Mel Eslyn, Mark Duplass
1 hour 46 minutes
What’s quickly clear is that Duplass’ Billy was the president of the U.S. back when there was a U.S. to govern. His tenure was short, with Brown’s Ray as a behind-the-scenes figure more qualified to make decisions than he was. (Hence the goofy chatter at the film’s start about whether Luigi was actually the most important Mario Brother.) And, though it’s not clearly acknowledged until late in the film, Billy is somehow largely responsible for the end of the world.
The men seem to have had some years to digest that horror, settling into the routine of keeping their bunker clean and functional. Ray, with a science background, has set up a teensy farm/fish pond to produce food — it looks far too small to be sustainable in the long term, but he evidently had little time to prepare. So they jog together, play video games and continue conversations that probably began long before they arrived in D.C.
Then the last female fish in their tank dies. The characters’ responses say a great deal about their relationship. Ray’s face shows he immediately understands this is a likely death sentence, as their diet depends on new fish being born. But this obvious fact takes a minute to register with Billy, whose understanding of big-picture stuff must always be “handled” by his smarter friend.
Around this time a small green light appears, high up in the inky blackness that used to be a sky. And as the days pass (or weeks — the amount of time passing is unclear in this static environment), it grows. What happens next — outside the shelter and in it — should be left for the viewer to learn. But suffice it to say that it inspires shock, deep questions about identity, and comedy whose flavor of discomfort makes Biosphere unlike any movie in recent memory. One friend recoils a bit from the other; one pushes through the strange circumstances in an attempt to make things work; both, in this microcosm, are in a sense grappling with questions real-life humankind has been arguing about for a while now.
But any topical parallels take a back seat to laughs and (sometimes suddenly serious) relationship drama. Can two people who may be the last living humans manage to keep living together? And even if they can, what’s the point if there’s no world to live in, and no one to help start civilization over? Is Nintendo a sufficient reason to extend the death throes of humanity until the fish and vegetables run out? Human psychology suggests these questions matter less to Billy and Ray than the future of their own friendship. Given the film’s warm, compassionate tone up to this point, it shouldn’t require a spoiler warning to say that friendship is likely to endure, in one form or another, until the world really does end.