‘Spaceship Earth’ Excavates the Experimental Underpinnings of Biosphere 2

Biospherians (L to R): Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacMullen, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Roy Walford and Jane Poynter posing inside Biosphere 2 in 1990. (Courtesy of NEON)

You won’t hear the word “utopia” in Spaceship Earth, Matt Wolf’s fascinating documentary about the Biosphere 2 experiment that sprang up in the Arizona desert in the late 1980s. That may seem like an odd omission for a film about a communal group of ’60s iconoclasts who bonded through theater, adventure, physical labor and nature.

Except that we are told, in a variety of ways and settings, that this particular collection of outsiders, dropouts, savants, scientists and artists valued pragmatism more than idealism. To pick a key example, their definition of sustainability put financial viability on par with environmental success.

If you’re getting a sense that Spaceship Earth has more to say to the start-up generation, puffed-up libertarians and early-career techies than to Summer of Love survivors, you’re right. To put it another way, the ’60s gave birth to more 21st century ideas than outdoor music festivals and legal cannabis.

Spaceship Earth is now streaming via the Roxie Virtual Cinema, Rialto Theaters and BAMPFA.

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For those who weren’t old enough to follow the news in the ’80s, Biosphere 2 was intended as a prototype for a space colony. Eight men and women were sealed inside an enormous, high-tech terrarium—encompassing wilderness, desert and marine areas–with the aim of surviving two full years on the crops they grew, the animals they tended and the oxygen the environment produced. Their job included the collection of massive amounts of data.

Following a quick montage about Biosphere 2 to begin the film, Spaceship Earth doesn’t return to its high-profile central event for some 50 minutes. We’re taken back to the group’s beginnings in San Francisco in the mid-’60s, where so many footloose, creative souls crossed synapses and embarked on life paths rather than career paths.

John Allen (Courtesy of NEON)

John Allen, a.k.a. Johnny Dolphin, an Oklahoman with hands-on, real-world experience and a Harvard MBA, was the catalyst, ringleader and magnet for an array of talented younger people. They formed the Theater of All Possibilities, sans drugs, and imbued everything they did thereafter with elements of spontaneity and improvisation.

One of those first collaborators, Marie Harding, taught herself 16mm filmmaking and steadily documented the next two and a half decades. This remarkable archive provides the wealth of candid images that editor David Teague pairs with contemporary interviews to tell a dynamic, nigh-irresistible story.

The merry band decamped to New Mexico in 1969 to start an expansive ranch named Synerga. (They called themselves synergists.) Their influences included R. Buckminster Fuller, and their constructions included one of his oversize geodesic domes.

“The magic of the entire enterprise was to always increase the challenge,” recounts one of the half-dozen people from those early days who narrate the film. In that spirit, once the ranch was humming along Allen led the group back to the Bay Area to build an ocean-going ship on the Oakland waterfront.

The Heraclitus, as it was christened, sailed around the world throughout the ’70s. (Owen Pallett’s score soars symphonically when the ship takes to San Francisco Bay, and at other high points in the troupe’s journey.) Allen enlisted Fort Worth billionaire and quasi-enlightened environmentalist Ed Bass to invest a chunk of his fossil-fuel fortune in various long-term sustainable ventures—a Kathmandu hotel, a London art gallery, a swath of land in the Australian outback—that the group members built and maintained.

The most prominent offspring of this marriage of collaborative expedition, personal exploration and long-term capitalism was Biosphere 2. (Intuitively, Biosphere 1 is Earth.)

Biospherian Linda Leigh and tourists. (Courtesy of NEON)

One of the great (and disturbing) things about historical documentaries, particularly those that delve into the recent past, is they reveal how inaccurately we remember—and how little we actually knew at the time—about events that are fixed in our memories. I vaguely recollect the media coverage as a great big smirk about eight people cohabiting (as if Biosphere 2 was MTV’s Real World) with a hand wave toward the environmental problems (on Earth and, in the near future, in space) that the project was grappling with.

Because the documentary devotes its first hour to providing the insider perspective on Allen and company’s various endeavors, we perceive the mainstream media perspective—which arrives just before Biosphere 2’s launch in the form of a tsunami of television segments—as shallow, superficial and sensationalist. Our sympathies aside, the TV coverage is not appreciably different from today’s infotainment recipe.

As much time as the film devotes to life inside Biosphere 2, I would have happily spent another 20 minutes under the dome. The chosen eight made a once-in-a-lifetime commitment and sacrifice, at least before the International Space Station began launching in stages later in the 1990s, and there’s lots of vicarious pleasure to be had watching them. And yes, I say that in the midst of a pandemic that has compelled us to seal ourselves in our homes with our families.

Exteriors of Biosphere 2. (Courtesy of NEON)

Spaceship Earth suggests that the media-generated pressure and expectations on Allen and CEO Margaret Augustine led the duo to be overly secretive in their handling of missteps. It’s never made clear, however, what demands their major investor, Bass, may have had as the months ticked by.

Shortly after the eight residents emerged from their two-year shelter in place, Bass booted the top management and brought in a smart, ruthless investment banker. This jarring late-game appearance by Steve Bannon, one of the many disreputable thugs who’s circulated through the White House in the past three years, gives the film a regrettable and irrelevant political association that contributes to the film’s inability to stick the ending.

We’re left with a sense of failure and finality centered around Biosphere 2 that is both emotionally and thematically unsatisfying. Allen and his compatriots committed themselves to the possibilities available through mass, unselfish collaboration and viable leaps into the unknown. Spaceship Earth is a film about the impulse to create openings, for oneself and one’s cohorts, and to embrace whatever risks and rewards result.

In an increasingly buttoned-down world, having the guts to seize that kind of freedom is rare and astonishing. And inspiring.

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