Unavoidable spoilers ahead for “Biosphere.”
Early in director Mel Eslyn’s feature debut, “Biosphere,” the film’s two leads, Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling K. Brown), comedically debate Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Billy, the less erudite of the two, laments the book’s lack of quotation marks to delineate dialogue, making it difficult to follow when the woman speaks. Ray has to correct him: there are no women in the novel. It follows two male cellmates in an Argentine prison. Having already pleasured himself to the tale’s steamier scenes, Billy is playfully horrified.
The foreshadowing here is both cartoonishly on the nose and something of a feint. To their knowledge, Billy and Ray are Earth’s last surviving humans, bound together in a doomsday dome as their supplies and ingenuity keep them alive. But what initially seems like a simple morality play about whether these two lifelong pals will remove the “B” from their bromance evolves into something both perplexing and engrossing.
Throughout the film’s 100-minute runtime, more and more details about their circumstances emerge. Billy and Ray have been close friends since childhood. At some point, Ray used his intelligence and guile to help get Billy, a charming buffoon, elected president of the United States — after which Billy’s idiocy literally doomed the planet. Now they’re stuck in the fortress Billy commissioned Ray to build. Initially, it was a way for Billy to keep Ray occupied and away from the administration, so Billy could prove he could accomplish something without his smart best friend’s help.
In that way, “Biosphere” follows in the footsteps of films like Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky,” meaty explorations of the deep platonic bonds between men. There’s an undeniable love between the two, but it’s obfuscated by a lifetime of suppressed mutual envy. In a key scene after an entire film’s worth of lighthearted debate over the Super Mario games, Ray confesses to Billy that he never taught him certain cheats in the game, so he would always have something over him. The film doesn’t take the time to unpack the layers of racial and class divisions between Billy and Ray, but “Black registered Democrat gets his Republican childhood pal the presidency” captures the bulk of their dynamic.
Brown and Duplass have great on-screen chemistry, with the former perfectly suited to his role. He’s got an enviable range as a performer, equally apt at lighthearted comedy and intense pathos. Were this solely a back-and-forth about how their curious little friendship doomed humanity, it might be too thin to support a feature film. Super-talky, one-location stories with only two characters are already far better suited to the stage or print. But “Biosphere” has more up its sleeve.
(even further deeper spoilers ahead)
Throughout the film, Billy and Ray keep a pond of fish named after characters from “Cheers,” and the death of the last female is a portent Billy cannot handle. Much of their friendship seems to ride on the fact that, as children, the two saw a magician pull a real-life bowling ball out of a paper drawing. Ray believes what they saw was magic, and it has fueled his lifelong ability to believe in the impossible and adapt in the most dire situations. Billy thought it was just an excellent magic trick, a clever and thorough ruse by an experienced practitioner. With his inability to fathom anything outside the ordinary, he has spent a lifetime relying on his best friend’s hopefulness to get by.
When one of their remaining male fish begins to spontaneously evolve into a female, Ray is elated at the implications. When one of their remaining male fish begins to spontaneously evolve into a female in response to potential extinction, Ray is elated at the implications — they may not be as doomed as they thought. Then Billy begins to undergo the same biological process. He grows breasts, and his genitals transition, and before long, he begins to menstruate. Duplass, an actor who has spent his whole career playing smarmy, white cis-men, delivers a surprising amount of softness and vulnerability with this element of Billy’s arc, playing someone who wants to try starting at a family at the end of the world as straight as possible. Ray, however, for all of his progressive values, is still hampered by the learned, internalized homophobia he’s run from in his family.
The film’s third act wrestles with ideas about gender and what we’re willing to sacrifice for a better tomorrow. Initially, “Biosphere” seemed like it was going to be a feature-length game of “will they or won’t they,” similar to the Duplass vehicle “Hump Day,” where two male best friends are coaxed into making a porno together on a dare. But instead, it transcends into something a little headier, a lot more ambitious, and more tender.
What transpires between the two and how it evokes Ray’s repeated “bowling ball” monologue is one of the most enchanting moments on screen this year. “Biosphere,” through shrewd writing and stellar performances, results in more than the sum of its disparate parts.
“Biosphere” is now available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, VUDU, and anywhere else you can acquire VOD film content.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, “Biosphere” wouldn’t exist.