In 1991, “a gleaming marvel had grown in the desert.” Biosphere 2 was constructed as an earthbound vivarium, intended to build a better future for all humankind. This bold experiment is the tantalizing topic at the center of Spaceship Earth, a Matt Wolf-directed documentary new to release.
It was also the inspiration for the 1996 Pauly Shore vehicle, Bio-Dome. But how close did this zany comedy compare to the real-life adventure of the biospherians?
Let’s take a look.
Bio-Dome begins with a sales pitch about its titular biosphere. A grim documentary-style segment intones, “Over the last few years, mankind has been witness to a continual parade of environmental disasters, leaving many to search for hope in an already bleak landscape.” Images of oil spills, raging fires and people in hazmat suits paint a picture of an environment on the verge of irreparable collapse. Bio-Dome is to be our salvation, the “first space station on Earth, a self-contained world, a pure environment, unspoiled, unpolluted, a world that no longer exists outside.” For one year, the Bio-Dome’s inhabitants will live in harmony with nature, striving for sustainability and maintaining 100 percent homeostasis, which is monitored by a computer.
Biosphere 2 had very similar goals. Believing humankind was on a “countdown to ecological disaster,” its makers aimed to explore how a new world might be set up in the stars. This experiment was intended to be a man-made “Garden of Eden” and “virtually closed system” that could lay the groundwork for self-sustaining space station colonies. They also hoped the press generated by this experiment would spike an interest in environmentalism in Biosphere 1, i.e., the Earth itself.
The intended inhabitants of the Bio-Dome were five respected scientists: a geologist, an entomologist, an oceanographer, an agriculturalist and their leader, rocket scientist Dr. Noah Faulkner (William Atherton). This $100 million endeavor was paid for by merch-minded financier Dr. William Leaky (Henry Gibson). However, the carefully plotted strategy for survival and homeostasis is threatened when stoners Bud “Squirrel” Macintosh (Pauly Shore) and Doyle “Stub” Johnson (Stephen Baldwin) sneak in just ahead of the doors sealing shut. Mistaking the towering greenhouse for a mall, they enter looking for a bathroom, then settle for peeing into the rainforest’s waterfall.
For two years and an estimated $2 million, Biosphere 2 hosted eight inhabitants, who had backgrounds in agriculture, mechanics, biology, oceanography, botany, ecology, ship-building and agronomy. The project was the brainchild of John Allen, who did not go inside — rather, he was the charismatic leader of the Synergists, a group of activists and artists who traveled the globe setting up various projects including a ranch, an ecological research ship, an art gallery and a rainforest. The Synergists aren’t a commune, but a commercially funded collective financed by Ed Bass, the wild card heir to an oil fortune. While their Biosphere had no eccentric stowaways, the Synergists’ reputation and ambitions attracted a pretty quirky crew to be biospherians. This included a doctor who insisted a very low-calorie diet plus a rigorous workout routine would lead him to live to 120.
The fictional Bio-Dome was set in an Arizona desert, but exteriors were shot on location in California at the Japanese Garden at Donald C. Tillman Water Plant. On a tour of the facilities, Bud and Doyle learn the Bio-Dome has a rainforest, a tropical lagoon, farmland and a desert. The crew lives outside of these spaces in modest rooms. Live animals seen in the movie include goats, a cow, tilapia, butterflies and — if you include Pauly Shore — the weasel. Within this environment, the bio-domers favor a vegetarian diet that relies heavily on soy for protein. The boys mix things up and cause a stir when they use the entire fruit harvest to make some smoothies. Later, their hunger for meat and junk food leads them to a secret storage room, where they feast on contraband chips, Cheetos and Spam.
The 3-acre, 8-story “environmental laboratory” in Oracle, Arizona, meanwhile, contained a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, savannah grasslands, a desert and an ocean with a living coral reef, as well as a farm and crew living spaces. Inside lived goats, chickens, pigs, butterflies and tilapia as well as hummingbirds, bees, bats, snakes, turtles, bushbabies, cockroaches, crabs and many, many more creatures. The farming zone allowed for meat for meals, so the biospherians weren’t soy-focused like their fictional counterparts. However, they did struggle for sweets. No processed sugar was allowed (no secret junk food stash), which meant using bananas for sweetness in baked goods. They even made banana wine, which one biospherian remembers as being pretty horrendous in flavor, but it got the job done.
Love Under The Dome
The B-plot of Bio-Dome centers on the strained romances between our hapless heroes and their respective girlfriends. Monique (Joey Lauren Adams) and Jen (Teresa Hill) are environmentalists who volunteer for litter pick-up and attend eco-rallies on the regular. So, at first they’re proud of their Bio-beaus. However, jealousy spikes when they discover that two of the scientists living with the boys boast supermodel looks. Kylie Minogue and Dara Tomanovich play the Bio-Domers who are initially annoyed at the juvenile pair. But once Bud and his bud turn over a new leaf, these ladies are down to lip-lock. Despite their early flirtations — and cringe-worthy non-consensual groping — the boys decide to stay true to their girlfriends. So there are no hook-ups in the dome.
Among the eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2, four were already coupled up upon entry. Spaceship Earth doesn’t get into the details of the crew’s love lives beyond this point, but it seems safe to assume there was love blooming along with panoply of plant life.
Who Wore It Best?
The Bio-Domers favor a sporty jumpsuit in khaki. This futuristic preppy look provides a sharp contrast to the fashion sense of Bud and Doyle, who favor a more 1990s streetwear aesthetic. Bud sports plaid pants, a purple thermal, choker necklace, a vest made from a sleeveless workman’s shirt and short, violently red-dyed hair. Doyle prefers jean shorts, a graphic tee under a bowling shirt, puka-shell necklace, a soul patch and white boy dreadlocks.
Believe it or not, the biospherians had an even sharper fashion sense. The jumpsuits designed for their public appearances were a vibrant red, with white piping and a black belt to cinch the waist. It was this dynamic look that first enticed Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf to pursue the topic of their experiment, as it was a powerful image that spoke to the Synergists’ desire to turn science fiction into science fact. Yet, the documentary reveals that the day-to-day dress code around the biosphere was more chill, including T-shirts and jeans. After all, you don’t need to look spiffy while vacuuming the common room.
Controversy and Catastrophe
When it’s discovered that two random goofballs have made their way into a million-dollar scientific experiment, the press and public are shocked. Dr. Leakey swiftly spins the narrative to insist this was intended as a means to explore chaos theory. He even markets T-shirts and anatomically correct Bud and Doyle toys. However, all this media attention isn’t good for the Bio-Dome. It spurs the pair to lean into buffoonery, which spurs the others to cast them into the desert, where the troublesome twosome risks starvation.
A twist of fate allows them to escape, then return to throw a massive party, where hundreds of college students crash the Bio-dome, thrashing its environments. After being shamed by their eco-girlfriends, the boys decide to make amends. But with oxygen low and homeostasis at horrendous levels, it’s a dangerous endeavor to stay.
Aside from mass-invasion and a world-ruining rager, the Biosphere faced similar issues. One crew member had to be let out because of a medical emergency. When she returned, she brought some outside items with her. This sparked criticism in the press, which called into question the integrity of this supposedly self-contained experiment. The biospherians also faced starvation and damagingly low oxygen levels, which led to some life-saving alterations that further soured the project’s reputation.
Bio-Dome boasts a string of curious cameos. Before she was a Scream queen, Rose McGowan appears here as Monique and Jen’s smirking friend, Denise. Infamous heiress-turned-actress Patty Hearst pops up as Doyle’s Mom. President Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a junior college professor. The pop punk band Wax appears as themselves, rocking out at Bud and Doyle’s Bio-Dome rager. And last but not least, Jack Black and Kyle Gass of the comedy-rock duo Tenacious D perform in the film during an eco-rally where the attendees engage in a massage circle.
Spaceship Earth features interviews with plenty of people who were involved in the creation and experiment of Biosphere 2, including John Allen, Tony Burgess, Kathelin Gray, Marie Hardy, Linda Leigh and Mark Nelson. Still, surprising cameos pop up. Bruce Dern appears in clips from Silent Running, a 1972 sci-fi film that inspired the Synergists. The Golden Girls’ Rue McClanahan starred in a promotional video about Biosphere 2. World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is shown giving the keynote speech at the Biosphere’s closing ceremony, while archival footage of businessman turned political strategist Steve Bannon — yes, that Steve Bannon — reveals how he became involved in this polarizing project.
The Transformative Power of the Biosphere
At the start of the film, Bud and Doyle would rather incur a concussion than volunteer to pick up trash or go to a protest to save the whales. They’re proud couch potatoes with no interest in the wider world. Living in the Bio-Dome changes all that. Their girlfriends’ passion for saving the planet finally takes hold when they see how their careless actions can hurt the environment and those around them. So they buckle down, clean up and manage to get the Bio-dome back to homeostasis just in time. When this daffy duo exits the glimmering greenhouse, they have grown, becoming better partners who listen to their lovers, and better people who consider community, consequences and the importance of environmentalism.
While the success of Biosphere 2 was debated by both the media and the scientific community, those who went inside definitely discovered personal victories. Through their hardships, they uncovered unknown inner strength. Through living so close to the earth, they garnered greater appreciation for nature. Their turns weren’t as dramatic as lay-about to leading activist. However, those who appear in Spaceship Earth declare they came out as better people, too.