Matt Wolf’s documentary about the ill-fated science project is a bizarrely perfect fit for our self-isolating times.
First, they built a ranch. In the early seventies, a group of hippies somewhere between a commune and a cult left San Francisco; led by a charismatic leader, one John P. Allen, the community set up shop in northern New Mexico and founded “Synergia Ranch,” an ecovillage where these dozen-or-so young people could establish their own alternative society. Then, they built a boat: no really, the group constructed a large sea-faring vessel called the Heraclitus and sailed around the world over and over again. And then, they built Spaceship Earth.
Matt Wolf’s documentary of the same name traces the construction and collapse of “Biosphere 2,” a literally larger-than-life project that captured countless headlines in the early nineties. The brainchild of these former flower children, the biosphere was an attempt to construct a completely closed ecological system, a prototype of a prototype for an extra-terrestrial colony. And from 1991-1993, eight “biospherians” really did lock themselves in this massive experimental environment.
Even in footage captured twenty-five years prior, it’s still a sight to behold, an enormous, Epcot-esque biome built in the Arizona desert, containing a miniature rainforest and its own coral reef. With its own crops and livestock, “Biosphere 2” – the sequel to Earth, the original biosphere – was meant to produce enough oxygen and food to keep its inhabitants happy for a full two years, a gamble the biospherians bet their health and safety on. This was a private science project, one meant to gather endless data on man-made environments used in any number of projects to come.
But Spaceship Earth actually takes a while to get to its makeshift spaceship. It’s never a good sign when talking heads in a documentary start referring to someone you’ve never heard of as a “genius” – in this case, said “genius” is Allen, the mastermind behind the group’s audacious enterprises. Just who dreams up something this big? To the documentary’s credit, even as Allen appears on screen in interviews, it is his former colleagues and companions who tell his story. Together, they paint the picture of a magnetic futurist not immune to cracking under the pressure of such an ambitious venture.
Allen instructed his wife Marie Harding to document just about everything from the late-sixties on, film that Spaceship Earth uses to great effect. Much of the footage is as grainy as it is gorgeous, adding a sense of texture to this wacky journey towards real-life science fiction. We see that Allen and his group weren’t just interested in colonizing other planets: they were also thespians (who ran a full theater company) and environmentalists. Meanwhile, the group and the biosphere found funding from Ed Bass, an ultra-wealthy oil baron who appears to have bought whatever Allen was selling for years.
The doc maintains a sense of amazement around the group’s work…
Still, it seems like it wasn’t Bass or any of the engineers and biospherians that doomed the project, but the strain of the media circus that set its sights on Biosphere 2. Mind you, this was media attention Allen attracted on purpose, media attention the project is better remembered for today than any specific scientific contribution or breakthrough. Spaceship Earth attempts to untangle this paradox, while still posing a lot of the same questions reporters were asking at the time: was this a real science experiment? Does John Allen qualify a cult leader? And what was the point of all of this?
Tonally, the doc maintains a sense of amazement around the group’s work, preferring to leave a lot of questions unanswered, a lot of interpersonal dynamics left unexplored (and simultaneously, not sensationalized). Would this material have benefited from the multi-installment, Tiger King treatment? Or should its two-hour runtime have been streamlined, as the current cut tends to drag around the middle? A few of the former biospherians sit down for extensive interviews, but where are the others, and why did they refuse? I’m not sure this doc needed to answer all these questions – instead, like the structure it investigates, Spaceship Earth stands as a monument to what we can build.
Spaceship Earth is currently streaming on Hulu.