Imagine this. Eight people from different backgrounds are chosen to live and work together in a “controlled environment” for two years. And over those two years, we see what happens when people stop being polite and get real. No, this isn’t a new season of “The Real World” or some other reality TV show. This was real life when in 1991, eight scientists were chosen to live together in a newly constructed bio-dome to test whether conditions on Earth could be adapted into outer space because of the effects of climate change. And again, no, this isn’t some sci-fi book or movie (but it did inspire 1996’s “Bio-Dome” with Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin) this really happened. Neon’s new documentary “Spaceship Earth“ dives into the stranger-than-fiction history of the project and the legacy of Biosphere 2.
If you were old enough in the late 80s early 90s, you might remember the media storm that swept the nation about this new science experiment lead by a group of cult-like members who called themselves “Synergists.” Those of you who aren’t old enough to remember might have seen the trailer for the documentary and thought that this might have been another one of those “mockumentaries” or a dark comedy. This definitely could have been a story on “Documentary Now!” But the team behind this doc does a good job of going into the back story of how this all got started.
Directed by a director who was barely old enough to remember the hubbub surrounding the Biosphere 2 project, Matt Wolf (“Teenage,” “Wild Combination,” “Baynard & Me”) brings a fresh and unbiased take on the experiment. The documentary is broken into three distinct phases. It starts with a history lesson, combining archival footage, music, photos, and voiceover interviews from the participants beginning 25 years earlier in the psychedelic, kumbaya age of the late 1960s. A man named John Allen starts a collective out in San Francisco, becoming the charismatic leader of the group of young adults who wanted to contribute to history. They wanted to be involved in everything–from theatres, art, history, science, filmmaking–they did all as a group. Oh, we know where this is going, right?! It’s these early beginnings that got the group their “cult” label and comparisons that they tried for years to dispel.
The second phase begins in the late 1980s with the construction of the biosphere. This was after they constructed an actual arc–yes, you read that right. After attending a conference in France about climate change and global warming, Allen and others returned on a mission to create an environmental lab and prototype for colonies in space once Earth was no longer inhabitable.
What seemed to start in earnest, got out of hand once the group hired a PR company and got celebrities (like 1980s/90s icon Rue McClanahan) involved. It was like the four men and four women chosen became overnight superstars on the same level as NASA astronauts embarking on a space mission. But it was hard to tell whether this was all theatre and one big performance art piece, or actual scientific research with real scientists who were trying to save the world. Because of their start with the “Theatre of Possibilities” and all the questionable characters (including Allen and their benefactor Ed Bass) surrounding the project, it does come off as more of a reality television show–or what some dubbed “ecological entertainment.”
From watching the footage and archival newscasts, it’s straightforward to see how this could all be one big scam. But from the interviews of the some of those who were living in the dome, they seemed sincere–they wanted to create the last refuge of Earth and show that it could be a viable option. It was real, and it was severe for them. But as time went on in Biosphere 2, shit began to hit the fan. There were CO2 issues, accusations of using outside help, confrontation, and fallout amongst the group, and the members inside were suffocating and starving–it began to look like the project was a failure.
Then comes the third and final stage in which the team on the outside, who’s running the show, and the team on the inside were no longer on the same page. There were distrust and friction between Allen and Bass, which ultimately led to Allen being kicked off of the project. Then enters the real villain of this story. That guy is none other than someone who is, to this day, cast as somewhat of a villain lurking behind the scenes and pulling strings. He’s had his hands in politics and is more concerned about making a profit off of Biosphere 2 versus trying to save the world–ultimately even denying climate change altogether. The two years end and the project is over. But the physical Biosphere 2 lives on–years later, the University of Arizona purchased it and continues to use it for research and offers tours to the public today.
“Spaceship Earth” couldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time. Being released in the middle of a global pandemic when most people are confined indoors, the team of scientists showed us that we could survive in a confined environment. With climate change, a major topic of political concern, this film continues to shine a light on that problem and shows us that combat it if we work together on a creative, innovative solution. The film also touches on another topic that has been in the news recently–every innovative startup has its cult-like aspects–from WeWork to Theranos to NXIVM that usually ends up in a tragic downfall. But most importantly, this documentary shows us that the real villains are the “Wall Street money types” who come in and push the innovators out and will ultimately destroy the world. Although at times it may seem impossible to decipher fact from fiction and real-life from performance art, this film has a message for today’s viewers. It makes us confront the world we live in hopefully inspire us to create a better world going forward.