It’s always strange when a film, its release date set months or years in advance, syncs up with current events. Of course, a writer’s job is often to synthesize their experiences and see how they will evolve down the road, but this typically presents itself more literally, as in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)’s parody of Elon Musk and the unraveling of his public facade. In contrast, Biosphere is a film about people we all know in a future driven by magical realism and tragic comedic farce. What would already be a film about our moment has become crucially timed after this week’s judgments from the Supreme Court.
It’s difficult to describe the plot of Biosphere without spoiling its radical premise, so if you’re already planning to see it, just know that it’s good, and you can go ahead and book those tickets. If you’re not already sold or know nothing about it, the main trailer is spoiler-free and does a great job of selling the film’s unique tone. It’s one of the better trailers this year. If you’re still reading, I am going to discuss the characters, themes, and technical achievements, but the inciting conflict will not be laid out.
Biosphere is a two-hander buddy comedy starring Sterling K. Brown (This is Us, Waves) and Mark Duplass (Creep, Zero Dark Thirty), helmed by Mel Eslyn in her directorial debut. This is the story of two men in a survival bunker after the end of the world. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film is about the isolation of the pandemic, but it’s really not. It’s about the people whose ineptitude caused it.
Sterling K. Brown plays Ray, a Democrat who worked in the West Wing as an advisor to his childhood best friend Billy (Duplass), the last President of the United States, and the last living Republican. He was president for less than two years, and it cost the world it’s atmosphere. It’s not poisoned, it just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no light or air or people outside their windows.
Brown’s Ray is a genius scientist and designer of their titular “biosphere.” As such, this bunker is full of academic and high-minded pleasures, like Shakespeare’s collected works, or the chessboard they play daily. Duplass’s Billy is an idiot, at least compared to Brown. He’s clearly smart, but he oozes that sarcastic but bummy charm of a white man with rich parents; he had to work for what he wanted, but not in the same way that Brown did.
Race and accountability are key themes in Biosphere. The two men seem to have attended Yale together, but Duplass got in easy and Brown had to struggle, even though his place was much more obviously deserved. Their dynamic is that of a Black man taking care of a white man, showing him how to do all the things he would do himself if society was fair, while the white man simultaneously demands and rejects that guidance, keeping the Black man under him.
In this allegorical comedy, these two men represent their races and political parties in the abstract. Duplass is a Republican party that pleads best intentions while destroying others with willful, self-denied greed. Brown is a Democratic party that cannot internalize its own right to govern, trying to appease its oppressors into changing as people. These men stand in for abstract movements, yet watching Brown discuss clinging to Duplass on the ladder to power cannot help but bring to mind Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose own Yale education was granted by affirmative action, only for him to pull up the ladder behind him last week.
A few days after that decision, the Supreme Court also handed down decisions prioritizing business borrowers over citizen borrowers and stripped people they don’t deem acceptable of a fundamental human right, the right to service without discrimination. Duplass’s policies as President are never outright stated, but the film makes clear that his platform operated along those lines, and this political platform built on empowering oppression with no serious thought to the consequences brought about the end of the world. And now, he must face cosmic retribution for his actions, while trying to decide if people really can change, or even deserve to.
Brown’s character, in contrast, must ask himself if he was such a true believer, why didn’t he fight like it? Evoking decisions like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg refusing to retire, Obama’s West Wing staff going on to help found the gig economy, and Biden’s decisions to prematurely end COVID emergency powers, avoid decisive action in the Debt Ceiling crisis, and allow the Supreme Court to exercise extra-Constitutional powers over the executive branch, Brown reminds us of the difference between doing the right thing, and trying not to do the wrong thing.
As a pair, Brown and Duplass are electrically funny. Their performances are both so good that I wouldn’t mind seeing either of them in this year’s Best Actor race, though Brown has the most legibly great performance. While they both exude charm and pathos here, it’s Brown who really convinces you that these two have been each other’s most important relationship for decades. As the only performers in the film, the two had to be good, but it’s impressive how well they each convey their internal wrestling with their self-worth, masculinity, and idea of the other. Director Mel Eslyn does a great job drawing out these performances, and as a queer artist, her empathetic analysis of the damage these men have wrecked on themselves by oppressing her community is both daring and moving. This is not a movie of excuses, but of change, and it’s very well done.
Where it comes up short is a downside of its construction. As a bottled drama with a thread of magical realism running through it, the film is often understated by choice, for better or worse. For the majority of its running time, this works in its favor, but when it’s time to add some nitrous to emotional apexes, it occasionally putters out. This is a problem we’ve seen with another single-location film this year, INSIDE (2023) with Willem Dafoe (Spider-man, The Lighthouse). With no external conflict or force to press on the gas, it can be difficult for this type of film to maintain a consistent momentum all the way to the end. It’s not perfect, but Biosphere does it better than most.
Considering that the film is about two characters trapped in a small bubble coated in reflective surfaces underneath pitch-black darkness, the film is impeccably shot by Nathan M. Miller (Paddleton; Out), who finds ways to make the film feel alternatively claustrophobic and spacious. The sound mix is great as well, but the score is an even better treat for the ears. Composed by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi (The Lady and the Dale; The One I Love), there are no instruments, only voices in this score, and it feels so personal and uniquely matched with Brown’s and Duplass’s performances that this reviewer wondered if they were those voices. They aren’t, but that’s how well-aligned the whole thing is. It really places you in the world of these two, final men.
Biosphere is a good film in a vacuum, and a great film for our current moment, with a potential path towards growing prescience. It’s well worth your time as cathartic comedy and as discussion-starting art.
In theaters July 7th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official IFC Films Biosphere webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.