The reality-show trappings of the infamous and grandiose Biosphere 2 project are, from today’s jaundiced eye, inescapable. A vivarium constructed in the Arizona desert to house eight intrepid “Biospherians,” five environmental biomes and a curated variety of flora and fauna, the venture was designed as a prototype for a colony on Mars or the moon.
The octet of personalities entered in September 1991 and mostly remained quarantined until September 1993. But the result was less environmental rigor, and more media circus and sociological experiment. Call it The Real World: Climate Change Edition, a spinoff that foundered after its second season.
I was chagrined that I’d never actually heard of Biosphere 2 until this month, when I screened Matt Wolf’s compelling, PBS-ready documentary Spaceship Earth, currently available as a digital rental through the Virtual Cinema initiative or to Hulu subscribers. It was, after all, a mighty big deal 25 years ago. Biosphere 2 earned celebrity endorsements from the likes of Tom Cruise. It was covered breathlessly by mass media at the time, which noted with reverence the spacefaring implications of its work and, later, when fissures began to break open the experiment’s credibility, investigated its downfall with equal fervor.
That the project seems to have at least partially disappeared down the memory hole is reason enough to revisit it through Wolf’s lens. The fourth and most commercial feature of the documentarian’s career, Spaceship Earth employs a deceptively simple structure, weaving modern interviews — most of the principals are still alive, and willing to divulge — with a remarkable cache of contemporaneous footage shot by Biosphere 2’s residents and founders. This was an eccentric group that had the foresight to film history in the making, even if the results are more cautionary than paradigm-shattering.
But Biosphere 2 isn’t the whole story. Wolf devotes the first 45 minutes or so to the creators’ embryonic earlier work, and the results are no less fascinating. John Allen, its chief mastermind, had been disrupting the status quo and making hay in the human-potential movement since the hippie twilight of San Francisco, when he formed, with fellow enlightenment seekers, the Theater of All Possibilities.
As if recognizing that avant-garde stage works could only go so far, their next project was more ambitious — a sustainable commune called the Synergia Ranch, where they divvied up responsibilities and lived off the land. Protégés of Buckminster Fuller and fascinated by his geodesic domes, John Allen’s merry pranksters recognized earlier than many in the New Age movement that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” an axiom that directly related to the Earth, and the impact individual humans had on it.
Eventually, Allen and company’s work branched out to influential climate conferences around the world, where, a generation before Al Gore took his high-def PowerPoint slides on the road, experts opined, using markers and whiteboards, on global warming and its devastating consequences.
Allen’s genius was his prescience in recognizing that our future on this planet is finite if we don’t do something about it; terraforming another celestial body may be our only hope. But like so much genius, it was accompanied by a certain Pied Piper madness. With his clutch of devoted followers, his communal ranch and his questionable methods — he selected his Biospherians by forcing them to play theater games — he fit the criteria of a cult leader, if a basically benign one.
As such, his small army was more than willing to spend two years in an isolated dome for the good of all mankind. A news reporter, in one archival clip, describes Biosphere 2 as a “prefabricated paradise.” Its off-site staff and inhabitants, in contemporary interviews, reference it in terminology that is fawningly religious: One compares its gathering of animal life to “filling Noah’s Ark;” another calls its initial tranquility a “Garden of Eden.”
But if Wolf’s cautionary tale tells us anything, it’s that paradise is often lost, especially when egos are involved and corners are cut. Image seemed to trump science. Using investment dollars from billionaire oil heir Ed Bass, the team designed matching red jumpsuits and blue uniforms to fit the S.S. Enterprise for its Biospherians, and hired outside media consultants to spread the project’s gospel.
They opened the biosphere site to tourists, and established a gift shop; hence the sight of two of its residents, including an anti-aging obsessed physician, mud wrestling, a show for gawking visitors just outside the dome. By the time serious accusations of tampering with the vivarium’s vital concept of self-sustainability are raised and confirmed, its value to science becomes diminished, its existence questioned, its backstage palace intrigue rancorous, its various blowups great for ratings.
Wolf, in charting Biosphere 2’s reality-TV disintegration, takes no pleasure and clearly has no agenda: He is very much the evenhanded historian. This approach nearly breaks down with the introduction of a third-act villain: Steve Bannon — yes, that Steve Bannon — whose investment banking firm, Bannon & Co., was enlisted to reconfigure the project’s ailing finances. (Bannon, at the time, spoke eloquently and surreally about the dangers of climate change, as unearthed in a Vice article from 2016). It’s an odd, under-explored detour that, while revealing the millionaire Bannon’s latter-day populism to be the pose that it is, receives too short shrift. One wonders if Wolf reached out to Bannon to get his side of this account on camera; the rumpled nationalist is not exactly a difficult “get.”
But when you come to think of it, the introduction of a co-architect of a reality-show president into a project long marred by reality-show theatrics shouldn’t be surprising. Spaceship Earth is a reminder of the extent to which public and media attention, as much as human error, can pollute an unimpeachably laudable idea.
Biosphere 2 could have been a game changer. It just needed a bigger bubble.
Spaceship Earth, from Neon Pictures, is available as a digital rental from Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, and the Tower Theater in Miami. It is also available to Hulu subscribers.