Documentary Spaceship Earth resurrects stranger-than-fiction story of utopian Biosphere 2 experiment – ABC News

Posted: May 14, 2020 at 5:19 pm

If you thought spending a month indoors binge-watching Netflix and ordering delivery was some sort of gruelling quarantine ordeal, imagine being sealed inside a giant glass terrarium in the Arizona desert with seven other people for two years, all while operating a self-sufficient farming project and managing a working replica of the Earths ecosystem.

That's just what happened back in September 1991, as a group of researchers set out to inhabit a project called Biosphere 2 a self-contained structure of glass Aztec-style pyramids and sci-fi domes that housed an ecological experiment to test the potential sustainability of life on other planets.

It was the mother of all iso projects, a utopian vision that seemed as such visions often do like a combination of wild-eyed scientific endeavour and idealistic, otherworldly cult.

This unusual episode of relatively forgotten pop culture history is captured in the new documentary Spaceship Earth (named for the phrase popularised by futurist Buckminster Fuller, a key inspiration for the project), which uses a wealth of archival footage and new interviews with the "biospherians" to tell a story of technology, art and environmentalism working in inspired synchronicity until their eventual unravelling at the hands of utopia's great foe, humanity itself.

Director Matt Wolf is drawn to eccentrics that tend toward (sometimes unlikely) genius, as evidenced in Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008), a tribute to the late experimental pop musician, or Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019), which chronicled how one woman's 30-year obsession with videotaping television led to her becoming a key custodian of the late 20th-century news cycle.

In Spaceship Earth, he finds perhaps the perfect subject for his fascination: visionary experimenters whose futurism had roots in the counterculture, theatre and the arts.

Of course, to an outside world fed by the prejudices of mass media, it had all the trappings of a potential cult.

From the film's opening shots of the biospherians in their quasi-futuristic attire looking less like intrepid explorers than the hapless henchman of some 90s-kids-TV villain through the early sequences locating the project's hippy-adjacent genesis in late 60s San Francisco, it's tempting to draw an easy thread connecting spaced-out, self-proclaimed visionaries and apocalyptic cult delusion.

But as Spaceship Earth demonstrates early on, this was a movement that took countercultural ideas and pushed them towards tangible progress, conceiving of projects that were committed to transforming humanity's vision for the future.

The group coalesced around John Allen, a systems ecologist who was less a guru than a kind of visionary frontiersman, closer to a fedora-hatted traveller from a Philip K Dick novel than some be-robed charlatan of the type that the counterculture specialised in cranking out.

Allen's Synergia Ranch and its Theater of All Possibilities attracted like-minded artists and futurists, whose energy soon focused on what they saw as the impending ecological disaster facing a resource-depleted planet.

The movement's peculiar combination of theatre sports and scientific entrepreneurship might scan as a precursor to 21st-century tech company culture, but seen here in grainy, hand-held 16mm footage, it's as though the troupe from Jacques Rivette's Out 1 were training for space colonisation images that Wolf splices together to resemble dispatches from an alternate history of a better future.

Allen and his colleagues speak with admiration for Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (1972), another radical, post-60s sci-fi imagining in which Bruce Dern communes with plants inside a biodome cruising into deep space.

But as the group's finance VP Marie Harding is quick to point out, the Theater of All Possibilities wasn't a commune but a corporation.

Bankrolled in part by billionaire Texas oil scion and eco-sympathiser Ed Bass, the group took a necessarily capitalist approach to funding their designs, and as the 80s wore on, with its high tech advances in space travel and boom economy, their plans would come to encompass a vision for developing extraterrestrial colonies in space an eco utopia that seemed to herald the best of what business, technology and ecology could achieve in tandem.

Under the imprimatur of Space Biosphere Ventures, the team set about construction of Biosphere 2 on land in Oracle, Arizona between 1987 and 1991 at a cost of some $150 million and curiosity surrounding the project would turn its launch into a national media event.

It even had in one of the film's more surreal interludes a Golden Girl, Rue McClanahan, introducing it to viewers at home.

Wolf, as he loves to do, conjures this expectant atmosphere with so much gloriously bled-out analogue video footage, overlaid with the familiar yapping of 90s media pundits that would almost feel nostalgic if it werent tainted by the ghosts of early 24-hour news cycle sensationalism.

As he proved in Recorder and his underseen youth chronicle Teenage (2014), Wolf is attentive to the aesthetics of cultural ephemera, pausing to linger on peripheral fashion, the occult-like vector graphics of current affairs broadcasts, or showing a group of black kids in Afro-centric t-shirts wondering why the biodome containing a self-proclaimed "ethnically diverse" group didn't have any provision for "brothers in space".

In these heady moments, Spaceship Earth recalls the anticipatory montages of last year's wondrous Apollo 11 just with more acid wash and hypercolour.

Meanwhile, sequences showing the early stages of life inside the biosphere the farming, the oceanic aquarium, the far-flung technology of video calls connecting occupants to the outside are set to the appropriate strains of Talking Heads' This Must Be the Place, aligning the biospherians with another eccentric American utopian, David Byrne.

But as with all dreams,reality, and human pettiness, inevitably intrudes. (It's telling that no-one interviewed seems to recall the bummer ending to Silent Running.)

"It won't work," says one random bystander interviewed for a TV vox pop. "People are too mean."

While the media do their bit to dismiss the project as "eco entertainment" at best, and a cult at worst, problems with rising carbon dioxide levels, issues with public transparency and inter-project bickering conspire to give the naysayers the fuel they need, and Biosphere 2 gradually turns into a proto reality-TV house with outside observers wondering wholl last the duration inside.

By the time the eight biospherians emerge from their terrarium, it's a different world one in which their vision has been called into question, and a Goldman Sachs banker by the name of Steve Bannon has been put in charge of administering the project, with a view to turning short-term profits.

It's a depressing moment, for sure, but the project has something approaching a hopeful ending, as many of the original members convene on the Synergia Ranch looking for all intents like the cast of Cocoon awaiting their benign alien transport or at least for SpaceX to give them a well-earned ride to the stars.

It may have been a flawed experiment, even a visionary folly, but as Allen says at one point, "it's all theatre".

Spaceship Earth is screening on DocPlay, which offers a 30-day free trial.

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Documentary Spaceship Earth resurrects stranger-than-fiction story of utopian Biosphere 2 experiment - ABC News

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