Sundance 2020: Spaceship Earth documentary light hearted, richly informed look at Biosphere 2 experiment

At one point, Biosphere 2, built in the middle of the Arizona desert between 1987 and 1991, was destined to be the most significant scientific venture by the U.S. since the 1960s as NASA prepared to have astronauts walk on the moon, according to a May 1987 article in Discovery magazine.

Biosphere 1 is the earth. However, a strange amalgam of individuals including a wealthy Texas oilman, the eccentric founder of a group called the Theater of All Possibilities, public relations professionals (including a third-party endorsement spot recorded by Golden Girls actor Rue McClanahan) and a crew adorned in spacesuit jumpers that seem primitive to the sophisticated tech-inspired clothing of the 2020s made the Biosphere 2 experiment a truly multifaceted experience of science, entertainment and tourism.

Biospherians (l. to r.):  Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacCallum Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silvertstone, Roy Walford and Jane Poynter posing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990 publicity photo. From Spaceship Earth, directed by Matt Wolf. Photo credit: Philippe Plailly / Science Photo Library. Courtesy of Radical Media.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf brings these memories from nearly 30 years ago into an engrossing, light-hearted yet comprehensively informed portrait in Spaceship Earth, a documentary which has played to solid responses by audiences in its Sundance premiere.

In 1991, the eight-person crew (known as biospherians) was sealed in the compact (3.14 acres) geodesic greenhouse encompassing various biomes found on the planet. Problems started immediately, as recalled in a 2010 feature in Discovery magazine and as they are featured in Wolf’s film, “carbon dioxide in Biosphere 2’s atmosphere had risen to 521 parts per million, a 45 percent increase above levels outside at the time. By the following day, the lowest it went was 826. Over the months that followed, the news at the morning meetings got worse. Crew members were feeling tired and began to pant when they climbed stairs.”

The experiment eventually failed, which only solidified Biosphere 2’s critics who ridiculed the project mercilessly.

Wolf, who was nine years old at the time of the experiment, extensively uses excerpts of the archival footage from the period. To their credit, the Biosphere 2 team members documented everything on 16-mm film, analog videotapes and thousands of images and slides. This meant the director worked with some 600 hours of archival content and film editor David Teague does a commendable job at helping pare this down into a clear, digestible presence in the documentary.

Biospherians (l. to r.): Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum (top), Abigail Alling (bottom), Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Bernd Zabel (top), Sally Silverstone (bottom) and Roy Walford posing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990 publicity photo. From Spaceship Earth, directed by Matt Wolf. Photo credit: DPSnyder / Institute of Ecotechnics. Courtesy of Radical Media.

This footage refreshes the memories of who remember the televised reports of the experiment. However, it also introduces younger audiences, who have grown up with the framing perspective of the global climate crisis, to a scientific venture that had admirable goals about what might be an effective human response to the environmental concerns, which threaten the planet’s sustainability.

The film backgrounds in detail the lead-up to the experiment, a section that could have been trimmed by at least one-third, but it also evokes why many observers at the time of the experiment saw it less as a genuine scientific curiosity and more as a carnival sideshow for public relations impact. There are scenes where tourists are snapping photos right up against the glass of the crew’s unique geodesic home with the crew inside working.

Of course, one of the figures featured and interviewed in Wolf’s documentary is John Allen, now 90. Allen, with a Harvard master of business administration degree in hand, also was a metallurgist working in New York City but his life changed after a couple of hallucinogenic episodes on peyote. He left the eastern U.S., established the avant-garde theatrical group and the Synergia Ranch in New Mexico. It was at the ranch where Allen met Ted Bass, the Texas oil entrepreneur. In some instances, the documentary seems more like a case study of small group dynamics, which is on the mark if one considers the sociopolitical forces that always have marked the advancement and acceptance of science as much as technology and empiricism have driven the progress of research

4. Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf. Photo credit: Jared Buckhiester.

Watching Spaceship Earth does evoke the odd sensation that, if one did not know better, it would be a documentary about the making of a classic science fiction film. That sensation does capture the overall reaction to the Biosphere 2 experiment in the early 1990s. Wolf effectively presents the historical context to a contemporary audience, which wonders if, in the 21st century, collaboration from the most unlikely combinations of individuals and groups will be possible if the participants are willing to set aside their differences in solving the existential threats to our planet’s well-being.

Spaceship Earth is a project that received a Utah Film Center‘s fiscal sponsorship and the center’s co-founder Geralyn Dreyfous along with her colleagues at Impact Partner Films are the film’s executive producers.

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