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‘Spaceship Earth’ Review: Under the Domes, Out of Their Minds

Documentary on rise and fall of the Biosphere 2 project is a fascinating look at one of the eco-science community’s most noble failures

The members of the Biosphere 2 Project, the subject of the documentary 'Spaceship Earth.'

Peter Menzel/NEON

They were going to make history on that day in September, 1991. The eight members of Biosphere 2, a closed-system laboratory filled with both living environments (rain forests, desert landscapes, deep-sea coral gardens) and living quarters, were entering the elaborate research facility in Oracle, Arizona. Amidst a lot of media fanfare, they were about to embark on a two-year journey inside the biomes and away from the outside world. The glass windows surrounding the buildings would allow them to see out and let visitors, tourists and other lookie-loos to peer in. But once the doors were shut and locked behind them, these “bionauts” might as well have been on Mars. The idea was to gather data for how to set up similar insular “natural” spaces for potential (inevitable?) interplanetary colonization. They were going to boldly go where no men or women had gone before without leaving our big blue marble — the first of many such pioneers mapping out a post-Earth future for the species. They would end up being the last.

Matt Wolf’s documentary on the experiment is a great primer on the whole enchilada, covering everything from its conceptual origins in the counterculture to the ecologically conscious eccentrics who spawned it and the eventual corporate freeze-out that shut the program down for good. The fact that Neon, the film distribution company who bought the movie out of the Sundance Film Festival, is releasing this via virtual cinemas and at a point in which all of us are stuck inside our own personal “living environments,” is simply a coincidence. (Consider the timing a perk that makes the viewing experience that much more immersive.) It would be a fascinating watch regardless of whether you had the option of leaving your house or not. Because embedded inside this one story of the scientific community’s noble failure are a half dozen other tiny sub-narratives that, not unlike the Biosphere 2 structure itself, gives you the chance to tread through a lot of different cultural terrains.

There is the tale of Kathelin Gray (a.k.a. Salty), a 17-year-old living in the Haight-Ashbury district who met an older man named John Allen (a.k.a. Johnny Dolphin — almost everybody has great nicknames here) in 1967 and how these two gathered a number of like-minded free spirits to explore the possibilities of communal living. There’s the legend of the “Synergists,” and how they went from free-form theater-art geeks to building a ranch in New Mexico and their own seaworthy ship, the Heraclitus. There is the idea that Allen was actually turning this collective into a cult, one of many that sprang from ’60s idealism and ’70s New Age practices and may not have been that healthy (if there’s one bone to pick with the doc, it’s that it brings up this accusation very late in the game and dismisses it with curious rapidity — a deep-dive topic that gets a drive-by mention). There’s the ballad of Edward Bass, black sheep of the incredibly wealthy Bass family, who’d bankroll a joint venture involving purchasing land and would be a key figure in making the Biosphere 2 project a reality.

And then there’s the mythology of the media, who would help sell the idea in a way that some dubbed “ecological entertainment” (a designer came up with red jumpsuits for the eight participants because they’d look best on TV) and, later, somewhat sour the general public on the project. There are the backstories of the misfit geniuses and individuals who made up the bionauts, from the Brooklynite jack-of-all-trades Mark Nelson (a.k.a. Horseshit) to the British conservationist Sally Silverstone to Roy Lee Walford, a doctor with some very specific ideas about how diet and exercise would allow him to live to 120 years of age. There’s the two-year tenure of the crew, captured via a great deal of footage taken by the participants, of how some compromises and high amounts of carbon dioxide sullied the scientific validity of the research — and almost caused the crew to slowly lose their minds. Finally, there’s the corporate takeover after the initial run, which results in Allen and his associated being booted out and some guy named Steve Bannon calling the disastrous shots.

Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) juggles a lot of these histories and various elements with a lot of dexterity, and if you’re never quite sure how he feels about the people behind the Biosphere 2, you can tell he admires the sheer cracked ambition and sense of adventure inherent in their achievement. He keeps his eye on a much bigger picture, which is a how a hippie-utopian notion somehow became an unlikely reality — and then an Icarus-like parable of how big business and activism aren’t always the best bedfellows. We may never see the likes of something like this again, even as climate change makes the impetus behind Biosphere 2 that much more urgent. But if Spaceship Earth proves nothing else, it left behind some one hell of a stranger-than fiction yarn.