Mon, 04 Dec 2023

Spaceship Earth

Director: Matt Wolf
Producers: Matt Wolf & Stacey Reiss
Editor: David Teague
Features: John Allen, Tony Burgess, Freddy Dempster, Kathelin Gray, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sallie Silverstone, Marie Harding
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth

If you were alive, conscious, and vaguely aware of national events in the early 1990s, then you probably heard about Biosphere 2, a three-plus-acre, completely enclosed and self-sustaining ecosystem research facility built in the middle of the Arizona desert. Described by some as an absurd publicity stunt and by others as an research into the feasibility of enclosed biospheres for space colonization, it was an utterly unique and unprecedented operation that looked like something out a science fiction movie. On September 26, 1991, eight men and women-medical doctor Roy Walford, agriculturalist Jane Poynter, engineers Taber MacCallum and Mark Van Thillo, ecological engineer Mark Nelson, conservationist Sally Silverstone, marine biologist Abigail Alling, and botanist Linda Leigh-entered the Biosphere 2 and closed the door behind them with the intention of not emerging again for two full years. During that time they would live together, tend to the individual biomes within the research facility, and conduct experiments. Everything they needed to live-including the air they breathed, the water they drank, and the food they ate-would be produced within the enclosed environments with no outside influence, contact, or support.

Matt Wolf's Spaceship Earth documents this fascinating experiment through a careful culling of hundreds of hours of archival film and video footage and new interviews with many of those who were directly involved. We learn about the expected interpersonal conflicts and frustrations that are bound to follow any group of people who are locked into a relatively small space for two years. We see the biospherians (as they were called) at work in the various biomes, tending to the plants, maintaining the technology that kept it all working, cooking and eating the very plants that grew under the glass domes. There were no end of challenges and even a few controversies, including Jane Poynter's having to briefly leave the Biosphere 2 for medical attention when her finger was cut by a rice thresher and later the introduction of outside air after the biospherians discovered that the plant life within the facility was not enough to process all the carbon dioxide they were exhaling. We see television news reports from the time, both local and national, many of which are obviously conflicted as to whether they should take this thing seriously or write it off as a whacked delusion.

Which brings us to what is arguably the most fascinating thing about Spaceship Earth: all the events the preceded the building of Biosphere 2 and the two years the biospherians spent within its glass walls. You see, Biosphere 2 didn't just spring out of nowhere. Rather, it was the culmination of decades of visionary work by John Allen, a counterculture guru with a degree in metallurgical-mining engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and an MBA from Harvard. In the late 1960s, Allen co-founded along with Kathelin Gray and Marie Harding the Theater of All Possibilities (TAP), a nomadic theatrical troupe and artistic practice network that merged interests in science, technology, ecology, and art. The documentary covers Allen's early years with TAP, which also included the founding of Synergia Ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he and dozens of his followers (so-called "synergists") engaged in all manner of environmental research, architectural and engineering work, and artistic endeavors. One of the turning points is when the group designs and builds a massive boat-for no other reason than to show that they could. The Synergia Ranch was also home to a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, the architect and futurist whose seminal countercultural book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth provides the film its title.

It's the kind of stuff that you just can't make up, and Wolf's film provides an intriguing glimpse into this notable and productive outgrowth of the counterculture, where a group of determined, thoughtful, and ambitious young men and women didn't just talk about making the world a better place, but actively worked to make it so. Wolf, who has been directing documentaries for the past 12 years (his most recent was 2019's Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project), keeps his approach relatively simple, eschewing flashy visuals or attention-grabbing edits, and relies instead on the inherent intrigue of the subject matter and the people who are still around to tell the stories. To this end he was able to get interviews with Allen and his TAP cofounders Kathelin Gray and Marie Harding, as well as Biosphere 2 participants Sally Silverstone, Linda Leigh, and Mark Nelson, as well as Tony Burgess, a botanist who worked as an outside consultant on the project. They spin tales of challenging ambitions to live their lives by their own terms, which turns the Biosphere 2 experiment into more than just an offbeat scientific excursion, but rather the apex of a different way of looking at life on the third rock from the sun. It is all the more tragic, then, that film winds its way to its denouement after the scientists emerge from the Biosphere 2 in 1993 and there is all manner of legal and financial wrangling over its ownership and control, which brings in none other than Steve Bannon, long before his notorious term as a chief Donald Trump advisor. Bannon, virtually unrecognizable in his younger, more svelte days, emerges as the embodiment of all the corporate-capitalist power-mongering that Allen and his cohorts had spent decades working against. Like many great moments of outside-the-box thinking, it turns out that Biosphere 2 was ultimately consumed by the commercial culture around it.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © Neon Films

Overall Rating: (3)


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