Biosphere feels like a movie Mark Duplass was born to lead. Small sci-fi with a provocative twist. One location, two characters, and a lot of talking. This is one of the pioneers behind the mumblecore subgenre, after all. Most of it works, and some it works really well. Written by Duplass and Mel Eslyn, with Eslyn directing (a longtime producer making her feature directorial debut), it stars Duplass and Sterling K. Brown as the last two living human beings on Earth.
They’re immediately faced with a mortal dilemma: their last female fish has died, spelling an imminent end to their sole supply of food within their tiny biosphere. Only two males remain. It’s a nifty open (preceded by a somewhat-too-cute discussion on Super Mario Bros.) that sets the stakes high. Ray (Brown) is a capable scientist. Billy (Duplass) is decidedly not a capable scientist who may (?) be the reason the world is in such a dire state. In order to survive, these friends much trust each other, etc. and so on. The two actors have an instant chemistry, providing more than enough energy even as the narrative slows a bit in the back half. And there’s enough scientific “mumbo jumbo” to allow for our two leads to move on to the important, theoretical bit: will life find a way?
Eslyn paces the picture out nicely with deliberate camera moves (Nathan M. Miller is the cinematographer here), relying smartly on some impeccable production design from Megan Fenton. Nothing’s ever too flashy, but rather calmly effective. One can’t help but think of Douglas Trumbull’s underrated Silent Running as an easy comparison. It is no small feat to build a world within a small setting. This, Eslyn and her team do with ease.
While Duplass, of course, adds plenty as the primary source of levity, Brown emerges as the standout. This is an actor who can apparently do anything. What he’s tasked with here is layered and strange and he tackles it head-on. Where the screenplay sometimes fails its capable performers is in its more expositional moments. Hints at the past (including important roles each character played in said mistakes) are distracting above all. If not for Brown this could’ve been a much bigger problem.
Wisely, focus mostly stays on the present. Narrative twists fulfill the parable promise of the picture’s opening text: “Once upon a time…” Without spoiling, Biosphere quickly gives its viewers much to consider. Yet one wonders if the film concludes ten minutes too soon. Still, what Biosphere offers is plenty. If life is to find a way, let it be thanks to actors like these.
Biosphere opens in theaters and on VOD on July 7.