Watching Bio-Dome For the First Time

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The first half of the 90s was a fertile ground for comedies that exploited the popularity not just of a single comedian, but of a specific character — or type of character — portrayed by a single comedian; Carrey’s mugging wise-ass, Farley’s sweaty manchild, Sandler’s violent manchild. There was a big rash of these films, all clumped up together in the Nirvana years, a byproduct of the tonal shift in comedic film as comedies with big concepts gave way to the trend of popular comedians in a series of more or less interchangeable situations. Ghostbusters without proton packs and Zuul wouldn’t be Ghostbusters, but if Tommy Boy involved textiles instead of auto parts, or Ace Ventura were a houseplant detective, they’d be pretty much the same movies. Those films were and still are about the comedians in them. And few comedians represent that tiny, bizarre era in comedy better than Pauly Shore, a guy who created a character that could never conceivably exist outside of his time.

So with that in mind, I watched Bio-Dome this week. Combining the Weasel with misguided, poorly-understood mid-90s environmental activism, with an added helping of Stephen Baldwin, makes for a deliciously ripe time capsule of maybe-comedy. Have all those squealy laughs and weird hand gestures ripened into a fine, nuanced comedy Cabernet? Or have they curdled into a disgusting, unfunny vinegar of brightly-colored ponchos and white-guy dreadlocks?

Well, first it should be noted that Bio-Dome was universally panned upon its release, so I’m not sure it’s even possible to “discredit” this film. It didn’t keep everyone I knew but myself from seeing it, but it’s not considered a classic in any sense. However, for those on the little-brother end of Generation X, Bio-Dome is the kind of movie that’s well-loved among my friends simply because they were in middle school when it was released. And when you’re 13 and it’s 1995, liking stoner humor while having no concept of who stoners are or what they do, is par for the course. And considering Bio-Dome isn’t really fit for anyone within its intended demographic, it’s actually a good fit.

Being a little more familiar now with stoners, the environment, science, girls, writing, comedy, cinema and Stephen Baldwin certainly gives me a different perspective than I may have had in 1995, and in short, this movie is really, really bad. In nearly every conceivable way. I won’t bore you with a bunch of negativity, but Bio-Dome is poorly conceived, written, cast, shot, acted, edited and executed, from the caustic, schizophrenic opening credits to the completely non-sensical last scene.

That said, this movie is a joy to watch. Totally serious.

Not because it’s endearing, which it only sort of is. Not because there’s hidden genius or raw potential here, which there isn’t. And not even because of that over-used-and-often-untrue excuse “it’s so bad it’s good.” But there is so much to delight in here, like finding your retainer in a drawer somewhere or unearthing a poem about how much acne sucks. Bio-Dome is a goldmine of lost and forgotten 90s artifacts.

First, the whole biosphere experiment and related Gen-X environmental awareness movement, both of which became quickly dated jokes without the help of the Weasel, conjure images of Captain Planet, paranoia and misinformation about the ozone layer, and the first public obsession with global warming. Not that the ozone and global warming aren’t hugely important matters, but the way pop culture treats issues that it clearly doesn’t understand but wants to exploit — like making a Pauly Shore movie about it — is delightful to me now.

Then there’s the cast. Joey Lauren Adams, who pokes the Kevin Smith portion of my brain which has laid dormant lo these 15 years. And Stephen Baldwin. He cracks me up. I can understand casting Shore. He’s charismatic enough, and I remember when he was in demand. But why Stephen? Whose idea could that have possibly been? It’s like casting Wayne’s World with Mike Meyers and Oliver Platt. Like, surely there must have been a better choice. Every joke he makes, every pratfall, every trailing-off improvised line — and there are a ton of all three — are just wrong. It’s like when you go to see a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof and the person playing Tevye is a girl. She tries as hard as she can, but you just don’t buy it.

But Pauly Shore really is the centerpiece here, in the iconic persona he created, profited greatly from, and immediately ran into the ground. The year of the Weasel. What a weird time, in the not-so-distant past, where people would pay good money to see that very specific character transplanted into any number of different situations. I also like how Shore’s nickname in this movie is “The Squirrel.” That’s like Henry Winkler playing a character called “The Funz.” You’re not fooling anyone, Pauly. This is not a new bit you’re creating.

And for what it’s worth, I like Pauly Shore. I think he’s been put to much better use than in Bio-Dome, but I’ve always admired his energy and his ability to have a good time in less-than-ideal conditions. His schtick is a little tired here, but you’d never know it looking at him.

Bio-Dome wasn’t a good movie then, and it’s worse now, but like the semi-ridiculous Biosphere 2 project which inspired the film, there’s much to be learned, even in failure. And it’s just so fun to watch, like a cartoon train wreck. It doesn’t work, but nobody seems to care — my own gripes aside, everyone involved in the film seems to be having a great time. And why shouldn’t they? Isn’t making a movie which stops being relevant on any level outside of its time of release, in some small way, a perfect example of living in the moment?

Eh, maybe not. But not all comedies can hold up for eternity. Maybe the next best thing is to be as singularly transient as possible.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.