Release Date: May 8, 2020
Running Time: 113 minutes
Tired after these past two months in self-quarantine? Now imagine being part of an ambitious science project that requires being locked inside an airtight structure for two whole years. Of course, the difference being staying at home during the Coronavirus pandemic and voluntarily participating in an ecological systems research project is a matter of life and death. But still, Big Brother contestants aside, how many regular folks would really want to remove themselves from the outside world for such an extended period of time? Not that the prospect of two years of social isolation bothered the eight members of the scientific community who entered the Biosphere 2 research facility on Sept. 26, 1991. The scientific endeavors of the "Biospherians," as well as the efforts to mount the Biosphere 2 project, are recalled in painstaking detail in director Matt Wolf’s relentlessly engaging and entertaining but decidely partial Spaceship Earth. This documentary offers an insider’s view of the Biosphere 2 project with the objective of dispelling some of the controversy that surrounded it long before the Biospherians were locked behind closed doors. Biosphere 2 project was an environment experiment for colony in outer space that was built in Oracle, Arizona. But Spaceship Earth presents the mesmerizing story behind the story. Which brings us to the project’s driving force, members of the Synergia Ranch, a counter-culture commune founded in 1969 that morphed into a corporate entity by partnering with Fort Worth billionaire philanthropist Ed Bass on hotel and gallery development and construction projects. (“We called ourselves Synergists. We needed to come more directly connected to growing food and not just being consumers," says Synergist Kathelin Gray.) Led by systems ecologist John P. Allen, the Synergists began with the modest ambition of enjoying a self-sustaining existence in New Mexico before becoming concerned with climate change. Says Allen: “I was fundamentally interested in transformation of where we are ordinarily with what the human potential could be." This led to Allen and his fellows Synergists launching Biosphere 2 with the goal of seeing whether humans can survive long-term in an self-sustaining, enclosed artificial environment. “We loved the idea that when you start to think of colonies in space suddenly we are thinking of sustainable living on earth,” Gray says. As global interest grew in Biosphere 2, so did the media’s appetite in what was going on behind the scenes. There were news stories about the Synergists’ unconventional history, philosophy, and methods; their commitment to science vs. ecological entertainment; the growing tension among the Biospherians; and some of the decisions the Synergists made that seemingly violated mission protocols. Even the Biospherians' formal uniforms, which looked like they came from the wardrobe of a cancelled 1970s sci-fi TV series, came under scrutiny. (Strangely, Wolf never seizes on one laughable 1991 news report that declares the lily white Biospherians "an ethnically diverse group" to question Allen as to why the ranks of the Synergists lack ethno-racial diversity.) Biosphere 2 itself makes for a fascinating documentary, and Wolf does a thorough job of chronicling the project’s history from start to finish and examining the changing dynamics between the Biospherians with the aid of archive footage. “I thought this was a great bright group of people that are really into what they are doing,” says Biospherian Linda Leigh. “They were exciting. They were excited. They’re doing cool things. They’re wacky and I fit right in.” But, as Gray tells Wolf, “The appetite for sensationalism sells papers. Describing complex projects doesn’t sell papers.” And the same applies to Spaceship Earth. The documentary is at its most compelling when it does a deep dive into the founding, establishing, and evolution of the Synergia Ranch, which initially started in 1966 as an art collective known as The Theater of All Possibilities. Wolf is gifted footage shot by Gray among others that goes all the way back to the early days of The Theater of All Possibilities and the Synergia Ranch as well as the construction of one of Synergists’ first major construction project, an ocean-faring vessel called The Heraclitus. It all starts with John P. Allen, who is described by Synergia Ranch manager Marie Harding as “a very good leader .... If you feel that you have been given permission to go any type of task, no matter what it is, you’ll do.” At the same time, Spaceship Earth does not shy away from recalling the news stories that question whether Allen was just another cult leader. Allen today laughs off any accusations: “I was attacked but I didn’t feel it. Here is your brain-washing cult leader!’” But Spaceship Earth suggests that Allen not only did feel the pressure that came with overseeing a highly publicized $150 million program but became increasingly paranoid and secretive as his authority came under threat from Bass, staff, and an outside scientific advisory committee formed to restore Biosphere ‘s credibility. This is never more evident than when Wolf recounts how increased levels of carbon dioxide inside the Biosphere threatened the physical and psychological health of its eight inhabitants. If Spaceship Earth’s main strength is its access to many Synergists, Biospherians, and 27 years of undeniably invaluable footage to build a documentary around, its weakness is its refusal to allow outside voices to speak about Allen, the Synergists, and the Biosphere 2 project. Spaceship Earth begs for informed and objective opinions to reinforce or dismiss claims made in news reports of the day, from the rampant speculation that Allen ran a cult to the concern that Biosphere 2 was either not good science or a flawed experiment likely to produce unverifiable results. The latter is especially important given that the interviewed Synergists and Biospherians claim the data compiled over two years was either placed under lock and key or destroy when Bass dismissed Allen and handed Biosphere 2 to Steve Bannon—yes, that Steve Bannon—to run. Bass’ absence from Spaceship Earth is especially felt, more so knowing that he remained supportive of Biosphere 2 through at least 2017, when he donated another $30 million to the research facility’s current owner, the University of Arizona. Spaceship Earth also does not seem interested in how the University of Arizona is currently using Biosphere 2 or any of the data it has gathered from the research facility since acquiring it in 2011. To this end, Spaceship Earth gives the impression that—intentionally or otherwise—it solely exists for the Synergists and Biospherians to tell their story without opposition. Even an anecdote by Synergist Tony Burgess about him turning against Allen’s leadership ends on a happy note. “Biosphere 2: is it a cautionary tale?” asks Biospherian Linda Leigh. “We don’t need a cautionary tale anymore because of the rampant destruction and death is already happening.” Is Spaceship Earth a cautionary tale? Yes, it certainly is a cautionary tale for outside thinkers ill-at-ease with mainstream attention and scientists wary of corporate benefactors. But too often Spaceship Earth feels like it is only telling one side of a cautionary tale.
Note: The Austin Film Society is presenting a virtual screening of Spaceship Earth through June 29 at https://www.austinfilm.org/virtual-screening/spaceship-earth/
Posted: May 7, 2020.