Matt Wolf’s scintillating documentary has a great story to tell; the true story of Biosphere 2, a human experiment which made headlines back in 1990, and has since been shrouded in scandal and mystery ever since. A group of healthy young creatives from the San Francisco area, under the leadership of fresh-thinking guru John Allen, agreed to spend a period sealed from the world in an elaborate construction underwritten by oil billionaire Ed Bass. Their two-year mission? To live as if transplanted to another planet, to discover how self-sustainable exploration might work, and forge a potentially valuable link to the future colonisation of the stars. After all. the mothership to Biosphere 2 was Biosphere 1, which is where we all are right now.
With such lofty ideals, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Bioshere 2 came a cropper when it came to reality, but the manner in which it failed is surprising and merits a feature doc of such detail. With a trove of archive footage, plus new interviews with some of the intrepid explorers, Spaceship Earth looks at the various players involved, from Buckminster Fuller’s innovative geodesic dome design to the intervention of Steve Bannon to switch the use of the data discovered. And when the experiment was in progress, what more august figure turns up to explain its purpose that Golden Girl Rue McClanahan?
The press were keen to denounce Biosphere 2 as a fake; these were not scientists, but artists in disguise, carped the media, who fastened onto breaches of protocols like duffle-bags of computer-parts smuggled into the laboratory area in the wake of a threshing machine accident. But such criticism looks past the remarkable individual stories involved, of young people striving for unlikely goals, and it’s clear from the testimony here that many of the participants feel that the experiment was a game-changer in their lives.
Spaceship Earth is the story of a secret success that came to be characterised as a failure, rubbished with the purpose of keeping the results from public view. ‘No-one needs another cautionary tale,’ notes one participant, but Wolf’s documentary will be of interest to scientists, thinkers and retro-kitch fans alike. The clips from classic 1970’s eco-friendly sci-fi Silent Running, cleverly used, remind us that the issues the project addressed are timeless; today’s political decisions about our environment seem to be short-sighted in view of the need for a long terms strategy for survival, and that’s a global problem if we’re going to steer Spaceship Earth to safety.
Thanks to Dogwoof for early access to this film. Out July 10th in the UK.