‘Spaceship Earth’ Review
Many of us built a terrarium for science class when we were in junior high. Did you ever fantasize about living in it? Well, that’s basically what happened in 1991, when 8 scientists were sealed up in Biosphere 2, a giant terrarium built in Oracle, Arizona. Their mission was to live a self-sustained existence for two years, and this was done in the name of scientific research that could lead to humans living in space. It was known as Biosphere 2, since they considered Earth to be Number 1. Filmmaker Matt Wolf kicks off Spaceship Earth with actual news clips from that day in 1991, when the door was shut behind the eight biospherians.
After running those initial clips, Mr. Wolf immediately takes us back 25 years prior, and introduces us to The Synergists – a group of resourceful, very smart, free-thinkers who assembled in San Francisco under the charismatic leadership of John Allen. At first, it’s a little confusing why we are watching these old ‘home movies’ from what appears to be a commune, and listening to these people, now 50 years older, talking about the good old days. Of course, the backstory of these folks with nicknames like Johnny Dolphin, Flash, Salty, and Firefly turns out to be the foundation of Biosphere 2…but not before they form Synergia Ranch in 1969 New Mexico, and then build a ship in Oakland from scrap metal in 1974. Their ship was named Heraclitus, after the Greek philosopher, and their inspiration was derived from writers Buckminster Fuller (Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth), René Daumal (Mount Analogue), and William S. Burroughs.
It’s understandable if your thoughts drift towards a ‘cult’ or ‘commune,’ but as one of them states, they were “a corporation, not a commune.” With international interests in a hotel, an art gallery, and a theatrical group, amongst other enterprises, they were able to sustain their creative pursuits. Inspired by the 1972 movie Silent Running, Mr. Allen and their in-house architect Phil Hawes began working on the idea of a self-contained space colony. By 1986, design work for Biosphere 2 had begun and Fort Worth oil billionaire Ed Bass was bankrolling the project. It was a massive undertaking, both in terms of planning and construction. The training and selection of biospherians began in 1990.
Given today’s ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, it’s a bit ironic that we are looking back 28 years to a small group isolating in a self-contained environment. Filmmaker Wolf doesn’t shy away from the science skeptics who, with a smidge of jealousy labeled the venture “trendy ecological entertainment.” Whatever you call it, this was an international event and drew interest from all walks of life right up until 1993, when the biospherians walked out of the dome. In another sign of remarkable symmetry to today’s world, in 1994 Mr. Bass fired most of the original group, and put Steve Bannon (yes that Steve Bannon) in charge of Biosphere 2. It might not surprise you that most of the scientific data and research soon disappeared.
Wolf takes us 25 years after the mission to catch up with Mr. Allen and other Synergists. The Synergia Ranch still exists and John Allen remains as energetic and idealistic as he was in the 1960s. Biosphere 2 is now open to the public and is managed by the University of Arizona. We still aren’t sure whether a pre-fab paradise will work in space…Wolf’s film is filled with interesting tidbits from 3 different eras, and though the early days are quite entertaining, it seems entirely too much time is devoted to the time prior to the Biosphere. Because of that, many of our questions remain unanswered as to whether the two years of advanced research, or whether the effort was nothing more than a glorified publicity stunt. Either way, capturing this in documentary form allows the 1991 Biosphere 2 project to be explained to future generations…some we hope will be as innovative, and dream as big as the Synergists.
Spaceship Earth is available on Laemmle.