In 1991, eight people volunteered to spend two years quarantined inside Biosphere 2 - a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem. The hugely impressive construction contained a desert, a rainforest and an ocean and the venture became a worldwide phenomenon.
What began as an ecological experiment, soon descended into controversy. The group behind the project were dismissed as a cult and critics described Biosphere 2 as nothing more than trendy eco entertainment.
However, as Matt Wolf’s brilliant documentary finds, Biosphere 2 was not the failure that its detractors would have you think. Yes things went wrong, yes mistakes were made but this, surely, is central to the nature of experiments.
Watching the remarkable journey of Spaceship Earth unfold - from a chance conversation about a book, to the creation of a theatre company, from the formation of a commune to the construction of a stunning, futuristic bio-dome - the failure lies not within Biosphere 2 but in how its visionary achievements have largely been forgotten.
In addition to its amazing story, Spaceship Earth features a wonderful cast of characters. In a series of to-camera interviews, many recall their involvement in the commune (inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, they called themselves Synergists) and share memories of their leader, John Allen.
Allen is described as a charismatic, dynamic and energetic man. He inspired the group with thoughts and beliefs about transformation, collective action and his desire to explore the limits of human potential.
It is fascinating to see what - years before Biosphere 2 - the group achieved. They all learnt by doing and were interested in the concept of sustainability long before it became a corporate buzzword.
In the 1980s, Allen - with funding from billionaire Ed Bass - began to explore the potential of biospheres for use in the future colonisation of other planets. So far, so Silent Running (Wolf includes clips from Douglas Trumbull’s iconic film).
The combination of money, science, sci-fi entertainment and an effective marketing campaign (later to become a victim of its own success) was, of course, catnip for the international media.
However, as Spaceship Earth reveals, having the eyes of the world on Biosphere 2 proved both a blessing and a curse.
Spaceship Earth's use of archive footage gives us remarkable (and often intimate) access into Biosphere 2.
Matt Wolf is an absolute master of archive footage. In Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, Wolf managed a vast amount of archive material - collected by activist, Marion Stokes, who secretly recorded television 24 hours a day for 30 years.
After deciding to make a film about Biosphere 2, Wolf and his producer, Stacey Reiss, flew out to Synergia Ranch in New Mexico. They were taken to a small temperature-controlled room that contained hundreds of 16mm film canisters, shelves full of analog video tapes, and thousands of images and slides.
“I was floored - the synergists had documented everything, from their earliest days at the ranch to the spectacular media takedown of Biosphere 2 on television,” Wolf recalls. “Combined with the video diaries of biospherian Roy Walford, we accumulated 600 hours of archival footage.”
The footage is incredible to watch and the task of sifting through the archive should not be underestimated. Spaceship Earth could easily have been overwhelmed by the weight of the material.
Thankfully, Wolf and his team (including superb work by editor, David Teague, and composer Owen Pallett) keep their eyes firmly on their powerful story - reminding us that the incredible endeavour that was Biosphere 2 was far from a failure.
Of course, Wolf could never have imagined that his film would be released at a time when many of us, like the biospherians, are quarantined as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“Like all of us today, the biospherians lived confined inside and they managed day to day life with limited resources, often under great interpersonal stress,” says Wolf. “But when they re-entered the world, they were forever transformed - no longer would they take anything for granted - not even a breath.
“In light of Covid-19, we are all living like biospherians and we too will re enter a new world. The question is how will we be transformed? Now with a visceral sense of the fragility of our world, it’s on us to protect it.”