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In 1991, a group of eight people entered a giant dome, a closed-system biosphere intended to be self-supporting. They called themselves “Biospherians,” wore space-age jumpsuits, and planned to stay two years, growing their own crops, recycling waste and air, and performing an “experiment” to see if it would be possible for human life to be sustained in such an environment. The structure was called Biosphere 2 (because Biosphere 1 is Earth), and it was a huge media sensation.
If you remember the media coverage of Biosphere 2 — or the 1996 Pauly Shore movie Biodome, which is (very) loosely based on the experiment — then you might remember the Biosphere 2 “experiment” as having flopped due to the interpersonal conflicts and scientific controversies that inevitably arose. At its conclusion, the project was mostly painted by media coverage as a farce and a failure.
But if you don’t remember it, and even if you do, the real story as captured in Spaceship Earth is fascinating, both much stranger and oddly more inspirational than the media reports from the time and people’s hazy memories might recall. The project was part of a long string of commercial ventures from a sort-of commune of inventors and forward thinkers that started in the 1970s, a group that called themselves “Synergists.” And the eventual end of Biosphere 2 involved a twist nobody could have seen coming.
Documentarian Matt Wolf decided to explore the Biosphere 2 project by backing way up and beginning with the Synergists, delving into their archives and talking to the members of the group and the Biospherians — most of whom are still alive — about what really went on. It’s a weird, surprising, and even hopeful tale of how groups of people can band together and actually effect change, even when that change looks mystifying from the outside.
I talked to Wolf by phone about the resulting film, Spaceship Earth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is opening on digital platforms and through virtual theatrical engagements on May 8. We discussed the odd contours of the story and what he hopes it will bring to people who watch it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you first started making this film, what did you think the story would be about?
Going into it, I obviously thought that the film would be about Biosphere 2. And then, as soon as I started reaching out to the people who were involved with the project, I came to understand that the pre-history of the project was pretty fascinating. The unconventional group who had conceived of the project, the so-called Synergists, had a fascinating history beyond that, as well as a one-of-a-kind archive. They recognized that what they were doing was of historical significance, so they began filming as early as the 1960s. In fact, the story of Biosphere 2 is actually a half-century epic involving their journey as a small group trying to literally reimagine the world.
As I started to get a sense of the scope of the material, this unfamiliar story about this group of outliers, I recognized that I wanted to follow their journey and to tell their story. Their work found its greatest expression in Biosphere 2 — but it was rebuked.
That’s what literally happened, but I also felt like there was a deeper tale here — something that transcends the Synergists. There’s something here about idealism, about movements, about people who try to make the world a better place despite outside forces.
That’s a really important thread. There’s a history of back-to-the-land counterculturalists who get involved in cyber cultures — it’s, in some sense, the history of neoliberalism. This group, though, wasn’t hippies; they were capitalists. They were interested in ecologically minded enterprises, and they forged an unlikely partnership with Texas oil scion Ed Bass.
So, I think the idea that one could combine business enterprise and ecology for endeavors that are both ecologically sustainable and economically sustainable was definitely a product of its time. But that became the downfall of the project. And it proved to be impossible to accommodate the vision of Biosphere 2 with the short-term profit-maximization reality of capitalism. There are limitations to operating on a huge scale because of the practical implications of that. To me, it’s both an inspiring story about human achievement and cautionary about the limitations of that as well.
I was young enough in the early ’90s that I don’t remember this happening.
So at every turn, I thought, “Wow, what is going to happen next?” I kept expecting things to go wrong, or for there to be a giant twist, and it bucked my expectations every time.
Right? When we were making the film, we were like, “Is it a problem that there’s not really any problems or conflict for the first hour of the film? Everything just seems to be going their way. There’s no conflict.” Of course, eventually, there is. But it’s remarkable how much goes right for this group of people for a while.
I wonder if the audience’s expectation that there will be conflict produces enough tension to keep us going.
Also that people aren’t rooting for missionary projects. People come to them with skepticism, and that’s only increased over time. When people are attempting to reimagine the world and are doing it outside of mainstream institutions or the establishment, it’s rare that the larger culture says, “Those guys are amazing.” More often, people say, “Yeah, but what’s the hitch?”
I think that Biosphere 2 is separate from that. But [the Synergists] put themselves out there, and it became a pop culture phenomenon. When you court that level of media attention, when you become a phenomenon of that scale, its narrative definitely spirals out of your control.
The way the group courts media attention feels oddly innocent — like it’s done in good faith, to attract attention to an issue, rather than just creating spectacle for personal gain. It’s not about one person.
Not a cult of personality.
Right. It’s so different from reality TV, which we might expect today for a bunch of people who go live in a dome for a year. They’re not trying to become celebrities.
Right. From their point of view — particularly the Biospherians, who were not media-savvy but were thrust into an international spotlight — they had an opportunity to get out a message that was important to them. At the time, the word “biosphere” wasn’t even in common vocabulary. People didn’t know what it was. This was also pre-internet. So I think the notion of a story going viral was not there yet.
But I think you’re right: This was really on the precipice of the kind of voyeuristic entertainment that we still live with today. When The Real World came out, I saw a New York Times piece that compared it to Biosphere 2. I wasn’t able to substantiate this, but there’s been some writing on Biosphere 2 that suggests that John de Mol, the creator of Big Brother, was inspired by Biosphere 2 as well. And also, of course, the show Survivor. The connection is there. There are so many dimensions that would become standard for reality television and its voyeurism at play in Biosphere 2. In some ways, it was predictive. But it also suffered from people’s voyeuristic fascination, more than perhaps they had anticipated.
I imagine that coming into this situation, where people who were involved with the project back then got burned by the media, must have been difficult. How did you convince them that you were for real and that you wanted to tell their story?
That’s the biggest part of my job, to some extent. All filmmaking is about relationships. Not in the sense of business relationships, but in the sense of collaboration and building trust with subjects. It’s all at the center of the filmmaking process.
For me, it’s all about doing my homework. Instead of going to people unsure what I want to say, I need to understand what’s been said about their projects and their life’s work, and to understand what they’ve said, and also to try to think about what hasn’t been said. To figure out how to do something unique based on a nuanced understanding of my subjects’ lives or work.
So, I think a big part of earning people’s trust was doing my homework.
But these guys were really rebuked and slammed by the media. So of course, they had some hesitation and reservations about participating. Part of my work was to convince them that I wasn’t doing what the conventional media did, in terms of depicting Biosphere 2. I wanted to tell a bigger story with a longer view. Twenty-five years had passed [when I started production]; people are ready to reappraise a story like this.
Do you think this story should inspire people to not be so cynical about these kinds of projects and to take action about things they care about? We live in a time when some people’s activism seems to take the shape of tweeting a lot. But the group you profiled saw activism as something very different.
I think what is so compelling about this group is that they actually act on their ideas. They do things. They realize projects. Their ambition is so high, and they aren’t deterred by lack of experience. They learn by doing.
Those are all things that are super inspiring. I left the filmmaking process with the idea of small groups — that small groups are a model for realizing new ideas and doing ambitious things.
I think people feel there’s a certain futility in trying to gain consensus in the world, or even within their peer group. But [this story says] that it is possible to find a smaller group of people in your smaller world that have common goals and to do things together, and that there could be a cumulative significance to that if people band together.
So I hope the film inspires people to do things. And I hope also that through this episode of isolation and social distancing, people might leave with a sense of personal transformation, an awareness of the fragility of the world, and the belief that what we do has consequences. There’s an opportunity for us to look out for each other in a new way.
Spaceship Earth will be available on Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and participating drive-in theaters beginning May 8. See the film’s website for a full list of partners.
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