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‘Biosphere’ review: It’s the end of the world (and they caused it)

Sterling K. Brown (left) plays the wiser consigliere to Mark Duplass’s childish former president in “Biosphere.”

By Amy Nicholson

Over the decades that Billy (Mark Duplass) and Ray (Sterling K. Brown) have been best buds, the world has gotten worse — and they’re to blame. Honestly. “Biosphere,” a honed yet heartfelt two-person dramedy by the first-time feature director Mel Eslyn, takes place in a geodesic dome under a black sky. A few years back, Billy, then president of the United States, destroyed the planet; luckily, his consigliere, Ray, had already built this bunker. Barring a miracle, it will be humanity’s final tomb.

Naturally, there’s blame to spread. “Maybe if you’d done your job, we wouldn’t need to live in a dome,” Ray huffs to his petulant, anti-intellectual roommate. Ray, the brains of the pair, still treats Billy less like a former commander in chief than like the child he’s known since grade school. Their lingering locker-room power struggle factors into why everyone else is dead.

At first, we’re steeling ourselves for an extended skit. Duplass, who wrote the script with Eslyn, gives Billy the same dopey charm that Will Ferrell awarded George W. Bush, and comes off as so likable in a would-drink-a-beer-with-him-if-beer-still-existed kind of way that it’s hard to hold onto the full horror of the hell he’s unleashed. (It’s possible to interpret Danny Bensi’s and Saunder Jurriaans’ a cappella score as a haunting by the apocalypse’s ghosts, though it’s a hair too chipper.)

The film is only glancingly interested in science fiction mechanics. Billy and Ray face a relentless list of threats: the dwindling supply of fresh fish, the fragility of their dome’s filthy glass, the mysterious green light that looms ever closer, and their history of stifled resentments compounded by a lack of privacy (“It’s not like you can put a sock on the door in here”). Yet these aren’t problems to be solved; “Biosphere” uses their survival as a stress test to gauge whether these old friends are capable of change. Can extreme pressures turn two towel-snapping, Earth-murdering lumps of coal into diamonds? Even at the end of everything, is there hope our species can evolve?

I can say without hyperbole that there are conversations in this movie that I have never heard before (and refuse to spoil). Better, I can confirm that Brown — the straight man to Duplass’ comic relief — delivers his half with conviction. At one point, his eyes well with tears as he tells a story about a magical bowling ball; later, he works himself into such a tizzy that he interrupts his own patter to lift weights. He and Duplass start off simply keeping pace with the audacious setup. By the end, the actors seem even braver than the script, which hesitates on the final step.

There’s an unreconcilable tension in a film that aims to celebrate the unpredictability of life while manicuring every last prop and casual aside for maximum resonance. Still, I’ll allow Eslyn’s heavy hand for a scene in which Billy delivers an ode to his underused phallus while gazing at a night light shaped like the Washington Monument. “You made me feel powerful,” he intones — a farewell salute that doubles as a goodbye to bad government.


Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.

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