In 1991, eight scientists – four men and four women – entered a privately-funded $ 200 million geodetic dome laboratory called Biosphere 2 to study the feasibility of a closed ecological system that could support human life beyond Earth. The experiment will last for two years. Celebrated in the media on its debut, the project was finally vilified and widely considered a scientific failure after CO2 levels became very high and fresh oxygen had to be pumped in. This failure was made worse by the temporary evacuation of one of the scientists for emergency operations on severed fingers.
Filmmaker Matt Wolf, who was only a boy when the experiment was published, happened back in the history of Biosphere 2, its unconventional creator, and the people who were part of the project, in his documentary Earth Spaceship.
The Biosphere 2 project is the brainchild of John Allen, a Harvard-educated engineer and entrepreneur who has founded a number of environment-focused businesses, including an eco-friendly village in New Mexico and a science-focused ship built by a group of young people who have traveled the world, all funded by a Texas billionaire named Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 was built on a 40-hectare campus in Oracle, Ariz., Where it still functions as a science laboratory and tourist attraction.
Some questioned the ideas and motives of the creators of Biosphere 2 when the facility was being built in the 80s. Initially it was considered a brave and brilliant scientific experiment, but over time, due to a decline and closer media scrutiny. The Jonestown massacre and deadly standoff with the Davidian Branch are still fresh in the minds of the public and the media are wary of fringe groups led by charismatic leaders, offbeat. Allen had been part of a counter-movement in the 60s, although his followers were more ecologically minded. They use the business model for the project they founded. Allen got inspiration for the construction of the dome from environmentalist / futurist R. Buckminster Fuller Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. But there is something rather strange. His group created the vanguard theater in addition to his scientific endeavors. Today, the combination of various scientific disciplines – science and art – is quite acceptable, but not until 30 years ago.
Wolf presented wart-and-all research about Allen, his followers and colleagues, and a two-year trial that caught the world’s attention. From New York, where he has been in quarantine for several weeks, filmmakers talk about Allen and the Biosphere eight group who started their project and Biosphere heritage 2. When making films, he said he could never imagine that a pandemic required everyone in the quarantined world.
“We all live like Biosphere,” he said, adding, “and we will re-enter the new world.”
The question is, of course, how will the world change when people are allowed to leave their homes and what will be done to protect the Earth from other pandemics?
With most cinemas closed, the film distributor, Neon, will release Earth Spaceship on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow, Vudu, DirecTV, Dish and Hulu, as well as “virtual” theaters, drive-ins and other businesses Friday, May 8.
Angela Dawson: Maybe you are not lost because most of your viewers have to watch this film from the comfort and safety of their own home where they have been locked up for weeks.
Matt Wolf: When you make a documentary, you expect things to go differently than you planned. That’s just part of making a documentary. Every now and then, a film has a different meaning than what you meant. That is the problem now. When we were at Sundance showing the film, no one could imagine a situation where people would be quarantined like Biosphere, and that this film could be constructive or meaningful in context with what we were experiencing.
Dawson: Neon has arranged with traditional and non-traditional exhibitors to launch films on the theater website plus the websites of other affected businesses who are interested in participating, including museums and first-time film suppliers such as bookstores, restaurants, and others. How do you feel about that?
Wolf: I am very happy to be collaborating with Neon on the release Earth Spaceship. What they do is experiment in the spirit of Biosphere 2. Many filmmakers have historically felt the idea of streaming is a kind of compromise, and that theater experience is an essential way to watch films. I am no exception to that but I also realize that sometimes you have to put what you make in the world in the right context that makes sense for this film, and it makes sense to bring this film to people today. I enjoy engaging with the audience in a different way. We will hold a virtual event to discuss this film, but I am also happy that people in all types of cultural institutions, and even small businesses, can partner with Neon to share the film with their customers and audience. When I make films, I like them to be part of a larger cultural conversation, not just entertainment.
I talked with some of my collaborators at Neon about how this film is really about small groups and the power of small groups to generate new ideas. What Neon is doing is giving people the opportunity to exchange with small groups in their community – be it their small business or their art museum or their independent art theater movie theater, and to bring groups of people together to watch films that aren’t ordinary. So, in many ways, beyond the idea of quarantine, I feel like a film, in its release, makes use of something that people are experiencing and thinking right now.
Dawson: What sparked your interest in this problem?
Wolf: I’m really interested in hidden history – stories with great significance and consequences that have largely faded from collective memory. Whether or not I know about them when they come from or the subject is someone or something that people have never really heard of, I am interested in reliving the past in a new and relevant way. I try to see old things and see them as new things. So, Biosphere 2 and the people who came with him, were really in my wheelhouse.
Dawson: Before watching your documentary, I remember the part of the story where one woman had to be pulled from the biosphere because of a medical emergency, and the experiment was stopped in the media as “another crackpot group.”
Wolf: You’re right, the perception of the project (Biosphere 2) is very dismissive. It was considered this spectacular failure and more science fiction than real science, and I was attracted to people who thought in experimental and new ways. There is an element of madness and weirdness to it but also insight. So, I think those things can coexist. What captivates the world about Biosphere 2 is the theater. There is a nod to it in the title of the film: both are the names of the cultural counterpart R. Buckminster Fuller named TOperating Manual for Spaceship Earth but it’s also, obviously, some kind of EPCOT entertainment trip, which is in this cartoon’s geodesic dome. So, both things happen at the same time.
There is a certain seriousness and firmness to the project but also a kind of theater spectacle. That combination is interesting to me. I entered into it with the conviction that the people who came with this project had a vision and that made sense. As I learned more about them, I understood how this was a synthesis of the many experiences and projects they had undertaken. There is also a certain tragedy in the fact that their life’s work has been stopped and so I am very interested in reassessing the legacy of Biosphere 2, in all its complexity – the victory of this group but also their warts and everything. Those are the kinds of nuanced stories that interest me, not black and white ideas about success or failure or genius or deception. I am interested in all the gray areas in between.
Dawson: Given that John Allen and Margret Augustine (company CEO) were vilified in the media, how open are they and other subjects you interviewed in the film?
Wolf: It’s always about getting trust. That’s the biggest part of my job; to do my homework and show my intentions to others and that I have done real work to understand what they are doing. Even if the inheritance is complicated and unresolved. With this group, there are many problems of trust with the media because they are completely destroyed. They diligently document everything they have ever done. They have hundreds and hundreds of 16mm hours (films), video tapes and photographic images, that they recognize what they do is historically important. They clearly have an interest in securing certain historical heritages for their project. So, at first, they were slightly guarded but they also believed that their work was worthy of being in the film. Same for Biosphere.
They all have different interests in Biosphere 2’s legacy and their own complicated feelings about portraying their project in the public eye. I am very grateful to everyone who participated in the film and shared their perspectives because I think it makes complicated portraits from different small groups, but also from a project that has so many layers.
Dawson: Biospherian Roy Wolford records hundreds of hours of recording in the lab and functions as a crew doctor. What does he plan to do with all the footage? Other crew members also documented their stay. Are they planning to make their own documentary?
Wolf: Roy was clearly inspired to make a documentary about his experience as a Biosphere. For a long time, he was involved in the editing process. He has some kind of epic piece from the film he is making. He died of Lou Gehrig’s illness much earlier than he wanted or expected. (He insisted that with a calorie restricted diet he would live to 120.) He died (at the age of 79) before he finished it.
I did not realize how many recordings were available. This is a kind of filmmaker’s dream and it is unprecedented for me to find stories with so many twists and turns. Every part of the story has footage, which is very rare. When I arrived at the Synergia Farm and met with the Synergists, I was taken with my producer, Stacey Reiss, to this temperature-controlled room, and I saw hundreds of 16mm tubes, analog video recordings, heaps and piles of slides, and photographs. I was really shocked and surprised by something that was said by a synergist, “We want to document what we do because it is history.” That sense of belief and conviction is what I associate with visionaries. When I look at the file, I see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell a unique story in a way that involves and is currently tense.
Dawson: If the Biosphere 2 project happens today, do you think the acceptance will be the same?
Wolf: There are two. We live in an era of startups and dot-com culture, where bully ideas that operate outside of mainstream institutions to pursue new ideas through private companies are not so strange. Very strange when John Allen and Synergists (the experimental agriculture group he founded before Biosphere 2) did.
The premise of pursuing projects related to Mars colonization with a large amount of private equity would not be considered strange at this time. However, the national news media, newspaper journalists, slowly reveal details about the Synergists in the group and their unconventional credentials, and the group is not transparent with the media. In the Internet age, it doesn’t take long for people to immediately understand the background of the group, and for more critical stories to appear faster. That might prevent the project from growing into such a cultural phenomenon. But, you never know. People are a bit more open-minded (today) about people who do wild and radical things outside the mainstream.
What this project proves, and is still true, is that if something doesn’t make money, it won’t last long. What is part of Biosphere 2’s failure is that as many projects are committed to the idea of sustainability, the economy itself has proven unsustainable.
Dawson: There are well-known public figures who appear towards the end of your film. Did you try or even want to interview him for the film?
Wolf: So many people do not know that he is part of the story, so I hope this remains surprising. The way I like to talk about it is that there is contemporary political space. I think it will increase people’s interest in the story as relevant today.
Dawson: Doctors, scientists and other experts are at odds about how we should deal with quarantine. There is a Swedish approach where almost everyone is free to roam and then there are other places like California and New York City where people are locked up in their homes except for food. Do you see us as a kind of biosphere experiment?
Wolf: I think, and this relates to Biosphere 2, it’s about two things: it’s about solidarity and taking into account your impact on others and the wider world. I am in New York City, the center of the coronavirus crisis. For me, wearing a mask outside the home is about solidarity, in the case that everyone is in this togetherness. It’s not only about me protecting myself but also trying to find other people who are more vulnerable. Part of how we have to deal with social distance and self-isolation is to look at our impact on the world around us and take responsibility for it because it’s not just about us. It’s about protecting our future together.