Toward the beginning of “Jurassic Park,” while debating the efficacy of the rigid confines of Isla Nublar’s foolproof dinosaur containment and control system, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm ominously intones the now iconic line, “Life finds a way.” This line is referenced numerous times, first directly and later more obliquely, throughout “Biosphere,” the directorial debut of producer Mel Eslyn (“The One I Love,” “Room 104”) whose film is featured as a surprise screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Led by Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass, it follows two men as they cope with being the last humans alive on the planet and the evolutionary changes that nature throws their way.
Ray (Brown) and Billy (Duplass) are the only residents of an apartment-sized bio-dome after some unknown catastrophe appears to have annihilated all other life on Earth. It’s implied eventually that Billy, once the American president during a time of crisis, may have had a hand in whatever it was that went down before the start of the movie. Ray, on the other hand, is haunted by the memory of a birthday party magician who made a bowling ball appear out of thin air.
The world outside is black and sunless. The only evidence that time is passing is the bio-dome’s 24-hour clock that brightens and dims the lights to simulate day and night, allowing Ray and Billy to live some semblance of a normal life, tending to their meager hydroponic garden and pool full of fish. When one of the fish dies, leaving just two left to keep the water filtration system running, what’s left of nature inside the tiny biosphere takes matters into its own hands, causing rapid, bizarre changes in places the two men least expect.
Co-written by Eslyn and Duplass, who had the bare bones of the idea when the two attended a writers’ retreat in 2018, “Biosphere” is hilarious and earnest, a thought experiment about gender and masculinity and (straight) male relationships in microcosm, tossing two cis Western men in the pressure cooker of environmental collapse, where the social constructs that have ceased to matter still occasionally bubble up to the surface. Ray and Billy jog around the dome, cook meals, tend their garden, and play Super Mario Bros together in a tentatively mimed pattern of domesticity, a pattern that is complicated and enhanced by a strange and sudden shift in perspective heralded by the appearance of a bright green light in the otherwise featureless sky.
It’s difficult to describe in exactly what ways the movie is smart about its unexpected and at times disturbing (and disturbingly hilarious) plot twist, but the heady ideas and cerebral debates are held together by Brown and Duplass’s incredible chemistry, able to yank uproarious laughs from even the weirdest of plot points. They’re so fun to watch that the movie becomes frustrating only when it keeps going, drawing a fabulist metaphor out for much longer than it can sustain itself.
“Biosphere” plays with a central theme of “sometimes things happen that can’t be explained rationally” but doesn’t really go anywhere with it, and some might end up frustrated by where in the narrative the film chooses to end, and which loose threads are left untied. It’s implied that Ray was once high up in Billy’s short-lived presidential cabinet, a brilliant and obsessive logically minded strategist who would have been much better suited to Billy’s leadership position than Billy was, but these disparate personality elements don’t have time to contrast each other before the film reaches its metaphysical conclusion. “Biosphere” is tons of fun as a character study, but its ideas will leave you gazing out of its geodesic windows, wishing there was something more out there.
“Biosphere” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.