‘Spaceship Earth’ Looks Back at the Utopian Vision of Biosphere 2
“Spaceship Earth” makes you thankful for the very existence of videotape. It tells a true story so intriguing, strange and unique that it’s a stroke of luck it took place when the events in question could be chronicled so well. In 1991 eight brave souls entered a massive structure named Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert. The idea was to create an artificial Earth to pave the way for space colonization. Director Matt Wolf tells the story from its origins even earlier in the heady days of the 1960s, when activism, green politics and avant-garde culture somehow all aligned.
“I was doing research on the internet for new film ideas when I came across this striking image, which you’ve now probably seen, of eight people standing together in bright red jumpsuits,” said Wolf as he began to share with Entertainment Voice about the making of the documentary. “It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie but it didn’t take me long to realize this was a real project and these people were ‘Biospherians’ who lived inside what was called Biosphere 2. I frantically texted my producer saying ‘we have to pursue this.’ I tracked people down to get them to tell their story.” The story begins in the late 60s and early 70s, when a charismatic utopian thinker named John Allen led a commune in San Francisco of like-minded freethinkers calling themselves “Synergists.” They were all typical of the college-formed radicals of the era, experimenting with theater while supporting the anti-war movement but also taking part in emerging environmental causes. After carrying out various projects, like building a ship to sail around the world or establish a sustainable ranch in New Mexico, Allen and his group find funding through an eccentric oil billionaire to give life to the Biosphere 2 idea. By 1991 the structure was ready and the media rushed to cover it. For 2 years eight members of the group would live within the biosphere with no oxygen fed from the outside world, maintaining its compacted Earth landscape of artificial jungle, desert and sea. But not everything goes according to plan and by the end of the experiment Biosphere 2’s crops struggle to survive, oxygen needs to be pumped in from the outside and corporate interests, represented by a certain Steve Bannon, come in to take over the structure.
“Little did I know that the group that conceived Biosphere 2 was this counter-cultural group,” said Wolf. “They lived on Synergy Ranch in New Mexico. I was surprised by their background and the projects they pursued before Biosphere 2.” Luckily many of the participants are still around to share their memories, including Allen who still has a twinkle in his eyes. He’s so convincing in his enthusiasm that it’s not surprising critics at the time compared him to a cult leader. The Biosphere 2 team featured personalities driven by idealism more than cold, hard science. They looked to films like “Silent Running” for inspiration. One Biospherian, Roy Walford, believed a low-calorie diet could extend your life to 120 years.
“Everybody was nervous about it. They were really taken down in the media. Their work was discounted and ultimately taken away from them. There was a lot of hesitation but that’s a part of my job, to earn people’s trust,” said Wolf. “I really believed there was a serious thought behind Biosphere 2 that had been developing through diverse experiences and projects…I saw this as not just being about the science of Biosphere 2 or Mars colonization, but about human achievement and what small groups can achieve when they put their energy into a common goal.”
As the Biospherians enter Biosphere 2 and the hatch is (clumsily) locked, the narrative becomes a surreal tale of confinement and big ideas going array. When crops yield few options everyone is stuck eating the same beet soup over and over, low oxygen also produces short tempers. The first major embarrassment comes when a team member, Jane Poynter, injures her hand and needs to emerge to get medical treatment. Wolf successfully pulls us into the saga because so much of it was documented by the Biospherians who had cameras all over the structure. Tense meetings between the eight inside Biosphere 2 and team members on the outside are also included. “Most of my films deal with huge archives…what was uniquely challenging about this film is that it’s such a big cast of characters. It unfolds over half a century. The biggest challenge which I tackled with my editor, David Teague, was to wrangle the material to capture these big ideas, and make it super bizarre and also funny. It becomes very high stakes and dramatic, but at the end of the day the idea was ‘what is the clear takeaway of this story?’”
While Biosphere 2 may have ended in “failure” in the eyes of the public, with eventually corporate backers coming in to take over the structure and future Trump associate Steve Bannon tapped as CEO, Wolf believes there were genuine ideas in the project that endure. “It’s really relevant today. It’s so hard for us to have consensus and to act together collectively, but what if we think about dealing with our horribly troubled world through a smaller and more intimate model of a group. How can we as a group reimagine the world in the more intimate model of a group?”
Ironically enough “Spaceship Earth” premieres just as the world is dealing with its own form of forced confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “As we grapple with the current situation with the pandemic, that’s going to be more and more important. Can we expect national leadership? Can we all come together as a country? Probably not. But can we take responsibilities through mutual aid and working with each other to rise from the ashes and reimagine the world that we knew? I think we can. I hope that this story just beyond the topical hook of being about a group of people who were quarantined also shows how they were transformed by the experience.”
“Spaceship Earth” premieres May 8 on Hulu and VOD.