Biosphere is about a strong and unbreakable bond that brings magic, queerness, and science to the screen. The film opens brilliantly with just two men jogging around a geodesic dome roughly the size of a one bedroom apartment, arguing passionately about the dynamic between Nintendo characters Mario and Luigi.
During the course of the film it is revealed that Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling Brown) have been best friends since childhood. Billy was once President of the United States. Ray, an accomplished biologist, was once Billy’s science advisor. Now they are together in a post-apocalyptic bunker which protects them from poisonous air outside. But when they start to see the biosphere – which Ray created – crumble with the passage of time, their relationship begins to fray too.
They had three fish for their dietary needs, but now the only female fish of the three has died. Ray starts to notice little changes in one of the two male fish remaining, and watches as it becomes a female fish. Ray turns to his collection of books, and reads that this sequential hermaphroditism has happened before (primarily observed in fish). Then Billy starts undergoing intersex changes. Billy has a meltdown; Ray, on the other hand, reacts with fascination. He’s scientifically interested and excited by the prospect that their bodies might evolve.
Outside the windows of the biosphere, a small green light appears in the sky…
Outside the windows of the biosphere (where there hasn’t been anything but smoke for awhile), a small green light appears in the sky. Billy’s reaction is to worry; Ray’s reaction is to study it. As Ray says: “This is all starting to feel unbelievable, and Billy doesn’t do well with unbelievable.” While the reason for the apocalypse – and Billy’s exact role – are never revealed, it becomes clear that Billy’s Conservative policies were at least partly to blame, policies that the much more Progressive Ray had pushed back on. As the green light grows ever bigger outside the biosphere, it is unclear whether or not the two will survive, but it does become incredibly clear that the key to a happy and healthy dynamic is balancing magic and science as well as anxiety and hope.
With outstanding performances from both Mark Duplass and Sterling Brown, Mel’s direction does a wonderful job of persevering the Brechtian theatricality and transmuting it to film. Recent media has been slightly oversaturated with trying to touch on apocalyptic quarantining, however this feels extremely refreshing and entertaining. Mel is able to access that now universal feeling of anxiety-filled claustrophobia that comes when one person shares the same space with another person for too long. Mel punctuates the comedy in the film with pushed-in closeups of the face the other character is already too familiar with. She also accents the existential dread with wide shots of the floor to ceiling windows which show nothing but a foggy barren landscape (instead of the world they are talking about). Mel’s direction zooms in on the sacredness and importance of such little things as the life of a fish, and zooms out on things larger than life (like gender and sexuality). So, while the film may not pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, Mel’s writing and direction establish a female-cenric gaze.
Although it is easy to dismiss some of the chats between them as schtick – or even the sitcom sort of superficial – there’s a lot going on underneath the comedy of Biosphere. The humorous Mario and Luigi debate introduces many pertinent questions: Does one person always have to be the “sidekick” in a two-person relationship? Is a woman a sidekick? What is a woman? Is gender something critical to life, or something we need to evolve beyond?
The beauty in Mel’s writing lies in the fact that the characters aren’t clearly stating the central themes of the film in the dialogue. She instead makes the audience ask themselves those questions in the moments of silence that come after the witty exchanges. She interrogates questions of masculinity and power through a hilarious scene in which Billy holds a funeral for his penis: “I let you lead me… I felt like I could take over the world, and I feel like you had our best interest at heart… Actually, I don’t know if I believe that.” While this dialogue had the audience in stitches, it is harrowing to think about how strikingly realistic that is. The world as they once knew it would not be over if Billy had listened to Ray.
The world as they once knew it would not be over if Billy had listened to Ray.
After IFC Films acquired the rights to Biosphere, they held a screening at Manhattan’s IFC Center with Mel (the writer and director) as well as Mark Duplass (the co-star and co-writer) onsite for Q&A. Mark said he had the idea for the film after writing the opening Mario and Luigi argument, then he credited Mel with “cleaning up the script.” But, as their dialogue progressed, it became evident she had a much larger role than that.
Mel said that she wanted to make the film a love letter about magic, gender, and sexuality since those are all the things that have changed her life. After being asked for her biggest recommendation for directing, Mel said “The points where you can identify other people. As a producer I see how the best directors pull in the collaborators so much and don’t just make direction about themselves.”
This inclusion is clear since so much of the crew came to support her as well as her husband Nate Miller (who was Biosphere’s cinematographer). Mel said that she also wanted to show that loving someone platonically as a child and now having different kinds of feelings for them is not something to shirk away from in fear but instead a way to become more and more like the people they once intended. With Biosphere, Mel is able to establish that unknowns don’t have to feel unsatisfactory and that it’s also more important to choose love over fear.
© Fiona Flanagan (8/25/2023) FF2 Media
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Learn more about Mel Eslyn here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Sterling K. Brown as “Ray” and Mark Duplass as “Billy” in Mel Eslyn’s BIOSPHERE.
Middle Photo: Mel Eslyn (director of BIOSPHERE). Photo Credit: Photo by N. Miller.
Bottom Photo: Crop from theatrical poster for Mel Eslyn’s BIOSPHERE starring Sterling K. Brown & Mark Duplass.
All images courtesy of IFC Films EPK. BIOSPHERE is an IFC Films release. All Rights Reserved.