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‘Spaceship Earth’ Is an Inside Look at the 1990s Biosphere Disaster

Documentarian Matt Wolf talks about Biosphere 2, a much-hyped scientific experiment that no one remembers — and how it’s now weirdly relevant in our cooped-up quarantine times

On September 26, 1991, eight men and women walked inside a futuristic-looking structure in Oracle, Arizona, smiling and waving to TV news cameras and enthusiastic onlookers before the door was sealed shut behind them. For the next two years, they’d live in Biosphere 2, a humanmade environment meant to replicate our own ecosystem, complete with rainforests, oceans and farmland. The idea was that this brave group of scientists, ecologists, doctors and others would create a working society within this facility — requiring no assistance from the outside world, which could spy on them through the glass like they were zoo animals. If all went well, perhaps humanity could one day learn how to create similar biospheres on Mars or the moon. 

What’s most remarkable about this high-profile, much-hyped project is that it’s been largely forgotten about — and if you even recall it at all, it’s probably thanks to the movie it inspired, the terrible 1996 Pauly Shore comedy Bio-Dome

Filmmaker Matt Wolf was one such person who had no memory of the pricey endeavor: He was nine when Biosphere 2 made its splashy televised premiere, but as an adult, he wondered why he couldn’t remember a thing about it.

That curiosity led to Spaceship Earth, his entertaining and thought-provoking documentary that retraces the history of Biosphere 2 and how the media soon turned against this optimistic endeavor, declaring it a disaster. That public pronouncement wasn’t entirely off-base — as the film illustrates, the team behind Biosphere 2 weren’t always transparent, especially when it came out that the eight “biospherians” did receive external assistance — but Wolf feels a personal kinship to the mission. “I pursue ambitious projects and they’re difficult,” he tells me by phone from New York. “If all of them were discounted and I was called a failure, it would be really devastating to me. But they carry on — they still do work. They’re not frozen and destroyed by this.”

The “they” he’s referring to is “the synergists,” a group started in San Francisco in the late 1960s, led by charismatic inventor and investor John Allen, who refused to conform to traditional societal norms. But they weren’t stereotypical hippies, either — in Spaceship Earth’s early sections, we learn how this collective melded a love of art and science, starting off as an experimental theater company and eventually building the Heraclitus, a large seafaring research vessel. Allen encouraged the synergists to dream big, which led them ultimately to envisioning Biosphere 2 — the name indicating that our fragile planet is, in reality, Biosphere 1 — and gathering the resources and manpower to see this massive undertaking to completion.

Spaceship Earth works on several levels — quirky history lesson, a study of best laid plans torn asunder, a treatise on the environmental movement — but Wolf could never have imagined when the documentary premiered at Sundance that it would now serve as a strange metaphor for life under quarantine. In a sense, we’re all trapped under glass like the biospherians were, and the filmmaker thinks we could learn some lessons from their ordeal. When he and I recently spoke by phone, we talked about that, as well as whether the synergists were a cult, how the biospherians kept from going stir-crazy and why Wolf didn’t want to make a movie about hippies.

One of the really mind-blowing things about Spaceship Earth is the realization that, for something that was such a huge deal in the early 1990s, we collectively have little memory of it. Why have we forgotten Biosphere 2?
I’m drawn to stories like this — I call them “forgotten histories.” This [one] was particularly intriguing because it was so popular and so captured the public’s imagination in such a widescale way. It’s really rare for something like that that went viral, so to speak, to completely fade from collective memory.

As I was developing the film, people’s main point of reference was the 1996 Pauly Shore movie Bio-Dome, which is sad — all the energy and ambition that went into this project to be reduced to Pauly Shore. It’s surprising to me how much people remember that movie, but they do. I think part of the reason is because the media dubbed the project a spectacular failure, and its creators were, in a lot of senses, refuted. So when the parody sticks, the real thing and its reputation further diminishes. The legacy of their work has languished, but I think that’s changing now. 

While watching the documentary, I kept thinking, “I wouldn’t want to be cooped up like that for two years” — of course, now we’re all in quarantine. Pre-pandemic, do you think you could have handled Biosphere 2?
It’s funny, I’ve never thought about it. I would never be a biospherian — I’m too lazy. [laughs] They had so much work they had to do. I couldn’t possibly keep up with that farm work, the data collection and cooking all the time — I couldn’t do it. These are adventurers — they weren’t just engaged in a scientific experiment, but were engaged in a human experiment, a life experiment.

We’re in quarantine now in New York City, and I go on my daily walk, yearning for nature. I think about how, if [the biospherians] were having a bad day or fighting with each other, they could climb the trellis of the biosphere, go hang out in a tree in the rainforest, or go for a dive in the ocean. As confined as it is, there was a lot of opportunity to really be in nature, as strange as that sounds.

In the press notes, you mention, “In light of COVID-19, we are all living like biospherians, and we too will re-enter a new world. The question is how will we be transformed?” In the film, we don’t see much about the biospherians’ life after the project. How were they transformed?
I think it was a rocky transition. You heard it from the biospherian Sally Silverstone — she wanted to stay. I think they really had fallen in love with the world of their creation, but also they could feel the consequences of their actions and could work collectively to manage [that] world.

I can only imagine how alienating and dispiriting it would be to go [back] into [our] larger world — you know [your actions] count, but it’s harder to see and feel [those effects]. It might be alienating to be surrounded by people who don’t share that sense of stewardship and responsibility, let alone just smelling perfume on people or eating processed food. I’m sure that was all such a harsh and difficult transition — whereas most people would assume, “Oh god, they must have been dying to get out.” I think it was probably bittersweet.

In the film, we learn that they spoke to therapists while inside the biosphere. How did they deal with isolation’s affect on mental health?
It was a challenge, but they had access to early, primitive videophones. People would visit and do a biosphere handshake up at the glass where two people put their hands together. They were on the phone all the time with people on the outside, and [biospherian] Linda Leigh engaged in early internet message boards. 

But, also, they were super-busy. There was a similar social stimulus to what we’re going through now — I find it to be true in quarantine that when I’m busy and have something to focus on, it’s a lot more manageable. If these guys were just sitting around, like on Big Brother, and hanging out, I’m sure it would be a lot worse. But having a task at hand — a real challenging task that at times was brutal — I think that, in a sense, made the whole experience tolerable. Maybe [that’s] instructive for us about how to cope with our isolation.

Yeah, we’re social animals, but this pandemic seems to suggest that we also really crave structure.
You create rituals and routines and schedules. That was what was interesting to me about the footage that [biospherian] Dr. Roy Walford shot inside — a lot of it, when I first saw it, I said to my editor, “This is boring.” You imagine, “Oh, this film is going to have people screaming at each other inside,” but it wasn’t like that. It was a lot of mundane rituals, like vacuuming and farm work and stuff.

I started to realize that that was actually really interesting — there was a meditative quality to day-to-day life inside of there, as physically grueling as it might be. It made me appreciate how one might tolerate a confined or limited scope of life — and that there can be a peaceful aspect to it. [Biospherian] Mark Nelson describes it as feeling like he’s in outer space — and that sense of personal transformation, I think, comes from that altered state that one might get into when they live in a miniature world.

It’s funny that you mention initially being bored by Walford’s footage: We’re hardwired to want that reality-television drama of people turning on one another. But did the group talk about how they’d handle that tension inside Biosphere 2?
They were engaged in theater partially to manage their group dynamics — to simulate and anticipate experiences they might have and to play those out. You see that in the theater performance [they put on before Biosphere 2], The Wrong Stuff, which was a dark comedy — they were role-playing scenarios in which things would go wrong. Of course, they were in goofy costumes and it was over-the-top, but I don’t think that was meaningless. They knew that they could face challenges, and they had been training and anticipating that. But the public scrutiny and the pressure from the media was something they hadn’t anticipated — a little naïvely, I’d say.

I think the film also speaks to a universal truth: We’re cynical about utopian projects like this. We instantly think, “Oh, c’mon, that’s never going to work.”
People are cynical, especially when confronted with idiosyncratic people who have a novel idea [that’s] based in an idealistic dreaminess. People are skeptical of that kind of thing.

It’s interesting: I never really set out to make an inspiring film, but this film is inspiring. It’s contrary to that cynical attitude that assumes a naiveté to people who want to pursue unusual ideas. As I went into it, what made me really appreciate this group was learning more about the Heraclitus and the fact that they had this totally bizarre idea to teach themselves how to build an enormous ship so that they could become planetary people. It certainly is something that sounds completely illogical, but when you see them accomplish that, it makes sense. As [synergist] Marie Harding said, “Now we were free.” 

I cried when I first saw that footage, and sometimes when I watched rough cuts, I would cry [again]. It was inspiring — if you can tap into that aspect of anybody who is pursuing new ideas, it’s difficult to come at them with complete cynicism and skepticism.

But I think Spaceship Earth illustrates how we don’t allow idealistic projects like this to be flawed. For some reason, we demand that they be perfect since the intentions are utopian — and if they’re not, we instantly tear them apart.
There’s a difference between something like this being public-facing and being private. When these types of things are private, there’s a lot more room to adapt and manage conflict and to readjust expectations and to set new ground rules. When you’re public-facing [like Biosphere 2 was], it’s almost as if these guys made a contract with the media and the public about what they were going to do and who they were and what their intentions were — but they were pursuing a lot of things and doing a lot of things. They were a diverse group of people in terms of their interests and expertise, and so when being scrutinized in the public, they needed to manage expectations.

Also, something that surprised me is John Allen really leads from behind. He’s someone who is older and [has] empowered young people to pursue things they didn’t think they could do. He’s, without a doubt, the archetype of the 1960s counterculture leader. To a lot of people, that resembles a cult leader — to me, that seems sensational. He’s a gregarious personality behind an unusual group — he’s a dot-com CEO. [laughs] I was surprised when I asked the synergists, “Is John Allen your leader?” They said yes. They said that small groups thrive when there’s strong leadership. John didn’t want to be at the center of the attention and be the spokesperson for the project — he was behind the scenes — but when things went wrong, of course, he became the object of fascination for the media. I think that in utopian projects that there often is leadership, and that the personalities who pursue that leadership are complex.

John Allen

This notion of a “cult leader” — anyone who behaves like John Allen scares us. We’re leery of those types of charismatic leaders who attract a committed following…
Well, I’m a film director, so… [laughs sheepishly] You know what I mean? You define creative goals, you put together a group of people who share your goals and you provide a sense of leadership and confidence about what you’re going to do. It all seems achievable when all of these different people combine their skills and bring their expertise. It can’t just happen by consensus — some groups do operate by consensus, but I’ve always found it to be incredibly stressful and frustrating to work in those kinds of situations.

I think of cults as being things in which people lack agency, are [in] physically and mentally abusive environments, and cut off relationships from people outside of that world. But the synergists had a comprehensive lifestyle. They were workaholics — I don’t think they were being coerced into pursuing these projects. It was quite a self-selective group of people — those who really found meaning in the projects they were doing and found that structure to be beneficial stayed, and those relationships have lasted. I think that’s actually really beautiful.

I don’t think that group would have stayed together without John Allen, though. He gave them a sense of purpose. But to the outside world, people who do experimental theater, are engaged in all of these eclectic activities, and speak in esoteric rhetoric, it feels outsider-y and crazy. I don’t see it that way — I see them as people who were in the counterculture and engaged with the avant-garde, spinning it in an unusual direction that very few people did. They are outliers as a result. I think if you’re going to go onto Good Morning America and you’re that group, the [contrast] doesn’t jive.

You interview Allen in the film. When you first met him, was he nervous that you’d think he was a cult leader?
Not at all. He’s at a later stage of his life — he’s in his 90s, so it’s important to take that into account. He has a range of interests. He is very intellectually voracious. But I didn’t find him to be the most accessible person. When I spoke to him, it was hard for me to follow all the lines of thinking and the cultural references. I found him to be a mysterious figure, but at the same time, he was pursuing his thing and doing his thing.

He’s not on the defensive about being called a cult leader, but there’s a trauma for all of them about what happened to their project. I mean, imagine doing something so ambitious that consumed every aspect of your life for decades — and then people compare you to a Pauly Shore comedy. It’s really demeaning and tragic in a certain sense. It’s almost like they dreamed too big — they scaled up in a way that wasn’t tenable, and there was retribution for it. I empathize with what I’d imagine feels like an incredible injustice there. I went to the film with that empathy, and I empathize with John, but I also see him as a somewhat inaccessible, extremely complex person who has a gravitational pull to him.

Spaceship Earth suggests that this group was part of the early environmental movement.
Yes, but they were doing their own thing. They were environmentalists, but they were creating a highly visible demonstration of what sustainable life could look like. It was almost a “theater of sustainable living” that I think made an enormous contribution to environmentalism. They also brought the word “biosphere” into the popular consciousness, whereas it hadn’t been known before. But they weren’t social activists in the conventional sense.

I understand what you’re saying, but to me they do seem like activists. I couldn’t help but think that this is a movie about what the 1960s represented for some people — and whether that counterculture ethos is still alive.
I’m interested in counterculture stories that depart from tropes of conventional hippies. That obviously was a huge draw to them [about me], because they distinguish themselves from hippies. They went back to the land, but they were workaholics and they were capitalists — they ended up subscribing to this neoliberal model of creating enterprises around the world in which they aim to be ecologically and economically sustainable. That was a noble effort, and they did it in the context of a burgeoning awareness of climate change — they aimed to improve the world and enhance sustainability. But I think ultimately the film shows — and it’s now an allegory for our world today — that the neoliberal model has its limitations and to some extent has failed.

But they were operating outside of the traditional Baby-Boomer-activist mentality around issues of environmentalism. They’re progressive people who dedicated their lives toward raising an awareness toward an issue and to try to understand our planet better so that they might be able to do something to help us. I’m always really drawn to stories in which people pursue activism in ways that don’t resemble traditional activism. I made a film about a woman named Marion Stokes who recorded television 24 hours a day for 30 years to protect the truth — I perceive her project as activism. With this, I wouldn’t call Biosphere 2 activism, but it’s political in a certain way. I see them as a group of people who reimagined a world — there’s an idealism and optimism that one could associate with the counterculture of the 1960s — but they literally reimagined an enclosed world as a model for ours. [laughs]

The metaphor of that is intoxicating to me because we’re about to inherit this completely upside-down world — we have to reimagine what that looks like and find viable models of doing so. The status quo is no longer going to work. We have to modify our behavior and our ideas about the world — and that is, in essence, what they did. To me, the main takeaway is that they did it through this model of small groups. Mark Nelson says, “Small groups are engines of change.” That really struck me, because it really does feel like a viable way to deal with our problems right now. The national government isn’t going to help us. We’re not going to have any unification as a global society. It’s on us to find smaller ways to manage the problems we’re now inheriting.

Essentially, the bigness of Biosphere 2 was part of the problem.
It’s the challenge of risk and scale. This group always upped the challenge — they got bigger and bigger and bigger. These guys, for a long time, operated on a more modest scale, and they had a lot of success pursuing the projects they wanted to do. But in our culture, particularly a capitalist society, the end goal is always “Bigger is better” — you want to scale up. But bigger isn’t always better. While there was an impressive spectacle to Biosphere 2, they’re doing this work on a smaller scale now. If we’re talking about sustainability, sometimes the smaller scale is what can last. I think that’s a lesson to be learned from the film, too.