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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Spaceship Earth and the Value of Utopian Thinking

What makes an experiment a success or a failure? For decades, the prevailing wisdom about the elaborate ecological laboratory known as Biosphere 2 was how foolhardy it was. Biosphere 2 was a splashy, $200 million New Age vision of the Space Age with a concept so audacious—lock people inside a massive custom-made greenhouse for years and see what happens—that expectations were sky-high. Many scientists dismissed the project as little more than a pricey stunt, and its own expert advisory board quit within the first year in protest of its lack of rigor. By 1996, it was parody fodder, a heavily-criticized punch line. The word “boondoggle” got thrown around. So did “folly.” Time magazine named it one of the worst ideas of the 20th century. In the popular imagination, it was a failure.


Director Matt Wolf sees Biosphere 2 as something to marvel at, though, not something to mock. His new film, Spaceship Earth, is a campaign to rehabilitate the project. Focusing on the eccentric group that developed and initially funded Biosphere 2, Wolf reframes the experiment as a modest success, proof of how much optimism can achieve, even if the results are messy or imperfect.

For two years, eight “Biospherians” were meant to live within the closed system of Biosphere 2, testing how well they could sustain themselves within the elaborate three-acre dome. The glass and steel structure in Oracle, Arizona, contained a savannah, a desert, a rainforest, a mangrove wetlands, a coral reef and mini ocean replica, and a working farm. Spaceship Earth opens on the day of the project launch in 1991, panning across a sea of eager reporters and over the four men and four women wearing matching jumpsuits and standing onstage, preparing to enter. It’s a jubilant scene.

The good vibes don’t last long. Within the first few months, the building’s seal had been broken, supplies had been smuggled in, and carbon dioxide had been sucked out. Before the experiment ended, many of the plants and animals died, insects overran the space, and the crew required supplemental oxygen. They made it for the full two years, but for much of that run time, the malnourished, squabbling group struggled to complete basic tasks in the squalor, surviving on bananas and beans as they swiped away mites.

Spaceship Earth takes its time getting to this problem-plagued mission itself, though. Instead of diving straight into the dome, it introduces the people who kicked the whole thing off, a group known as the Theater of All Possibilities. They weren’t scientists at all but an unconventional acting troupe started by a charismatic dilettante named John Allen in the 1970s.

Originally holed up on a New Mexico commune called Synergia Ranch, Allen’s troupe attracted an environmentally conscious oil heir named Ed Bass, who began supplying them with millions of dollars to undertake increasingly ambitious projects. As a result, this unusually industrious clan of communitarian dramaturges made their high-falutin’ dreams happen. There are moments when the film feels like it could veer hard into Wild Wild Country territory, but Allen, who participated in the documentary, remains a benevolent guru throughout. (At times, the movie has the energy of a well-done authorized biography, although by all accounts Allen really is a groovy dude with good intentions.)

True to their name, the performers in the Theater of All Possibilities built an 82-foot sailboat called The Heraclitus despite zero boatbuilding experience, confident their positive attitudes would prevail. Using footage from the boat’s real launch, Wolf captures the jubilant mood when, against all odds, she floats! Longtime Synergia residents, including Allen and his longtime companions like Kathelin “Salty” Gray, serve as the documentary’s talking heads, reminiscing lovingly about their adventures. With their DIY boat and all that oil money, the Synergians spent the '80s on an eclectic acquisitive spree, buying a cattle ranch in Australia and a hotel in Kathmandu, among other ventures.

Their most ambitious project by far, though, was Biosphere 2. With the deep pockets of Bass, the Synergians erected the largest closed system ever created, in the middle of the desert. As Wolf frames the matter, the real problem wasn’t the experiment at all but rather the out-of-control media hype surrounding it and the project’s own bungled response to criticism and lofty promises. What was fundamentally a well-funded hippie extracurricular turned into something that needed to prove humans could successfully create a self-contained ecosystem on the first attempt.

Several of the original crew sit for interviews, including Biospherians Linda Leigh and Sally Silverstone, and their accounts of the blighted experiment make up the rest of the film, which clocks in under two hours. The prevailing style for documentarians now embraces length and sprawl, often at the expense of the viewer. What would have made a snappy feature gets stretched into a multipart docuseries. Spaceship Earth reverses this trend; the story of Biosphere 2 could easily lend itself to Tiger King-esque serialization and side plots, but it is instead compressed into a single film.

Unfortunately, this leaves the narrative incomplete. Viewers who come into the documentary knowing nothing about Biosphere 2 will be startled when notorious former President Trump adviser Steve Bannon pops up in the film’s last 15 minutes. Considering the role he played in the Biosphere 2 project—Ed Bass hired him to take over in 1993, in a cost-cutting campaign, and Allen and other original Biospherians resigned because of his interference—Bannon’s screen time is strangely cursory. Even if Bannon refused to be interviewed for the film, there’s ample documentation of his controversial stint at the helm. A more perfect narrative foil for idealistic hippies couldn’t have been concocted in a lab. Use him!

You wouldn’t know from watching this movie that two of the original Biospherians, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, loathed Bannon so much that they broke into Biosphere 2 during the second round of the experiment to warn the new group about him and commit some light vandalism. You also wouldn’t know that Bannon pursued criminal charges against Ailing and Van Thillo. You might not even realize that there even was a second round of the experiment, as Spaceship Earth glides over what happens after the original eight are unlocked. According to news reports from the time of the Ailing/Van Thillo trial, Bannon admitted that he had “vowed to kick Ailing’s ass.” This is the stuff that narrative nonfiction films are made of, yet Wolf seems reluctant to delve into the interpersonal drama that made the Biosphere 2 experience so famously fraught. The most gossipy it gets is when the participating Biospherians discuss how the medical doctor on board, Roy Walford, irritated everyone else by pushing them to follow an extremely low-calorie diet, and how Allen felt betrayed by a scientific adviser who began to doubt him. (Allen ends up hugging the adviser toward the end of their confrontation, so it’s not exactly a lasting rift.)

That said, there are plenty of places to read more about the interpersonal drama, like Biospherian Jane Poynter’s memoir, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2. And Wolf’s soft-focus emphasis on the bonhomie of the Synergians makes Spaceship Earth an unexpectedly touching viewing experience. They persuasively insist upon the dignity of their project. The foibles of Biosphere 2 have been emphasized again and again, but its accomplishments are genuinely impressive. It wasn’t a typical scientific experiment, but it has yielded crucial scientific observations and insights, from methods of studying coral reefs to evidence of how rich soil can impact the atmosphere. Sure, Allen might have wasted some of Ed Bass’ fortune, but there are certainly worse things for an oil scion to fritter millions away on than an unprecedented ecological experiment.

While Wolf might’ve skimped on the conflict, this credulous portrayal of Biosphere 2 has an admirably committed utopian streak. As Spaceship Earth makes clear, the disappointment about the project’s freewheeling, flawed nature should not diminish the improbable accomplishment of its creation. Toward the end of the film, after it’s already clear that Biosphere 2 has lost its credibility, Wolf shows a montage of how joyful the Biospherians were once they had sufficient oxygen during their last stretch of months inside. They dance, they run, they play bongos. They didn’t consider it a bust. “My agricultural system was just becoming really good. It was maturing. Things were working well. I wanted to see what would happen next,” Sally Silverstone says. “I did not want to come out.”

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