If you were to travel through the barren Arizonian landscape, just outside of Tucson, you would find a cross between a science-fiction dream and a biological haven. A giant glass building named ‘Biosphere 2’.
This otherworldly structure, is, on the surface a mere tourist attraction, a breathing terrarium, housing every and all topographies from deserts to coral reefs. Though its roots lie somewhere far stranger, far more existential, a microcosm of human endeavour and imagination. Matt Wolf’s documentary study of the late 20th-century experiment follows the eight visionary individuals who helped conceive Biosphere 2 and their nomadic quest to seal themselves within the biosphere for two years.
Created by John Allen in the 1960s, ‘the Synergists’ were a group of independent free thinkers, abiding by a strict code of ethics in their journey for true autonomy and creativity. Once they’d built and maintained a small village, together with farmland and impressive structures, they continued to grow, creating a sea-worthy ship before sailing the world. Though they were later considered scientists, they each began as simple thinkers and creatives, ranging from pragmatic architectural expertise to more abstract theatre enthusiasm.
Captured through a wide collection of 16mm footage, the archival videos document their efforts to better themselves and the varying environments around them—and is captured in great length. Frustratingly, once they reach the titular biosphere, the film seems to partially run out of the footage. The story, though truly remarkable, doesn’t seem to be quite as remarkable as the real-life participants’ narration suggests. What should be the pinnacle of the story’s efforts feels oddly distant, sweeping over seemingly ‘turbulent’ relationships, and difficult dynamics with frustrating indifference, as if the group’s formation was the true story at hand.
It is the dynamic of the group itself, and their remarkable, and often inspirational code of ethics which become the film’s real momentum. Purposefully countercultural, the group would distance themselves from contemporary life and embrace total independence, subsequently creating the perfect storm of criticism for the mainstream media. The group weren’t unequivocally great, neither were they totally bad — as is the path of human endeavour — often they were a bit of both. Visionary nomads, both brave and naive, their idealistic creation was dashed down as a mere stunt, a performance on a grand scale.
Though, in this period of unprecedented reflection and ecological consideration, Spaceship Earth is a truly significant, edifying piece of filmmaking. In a totally self-sufficient biosphere, every element had its purpose, and any alteration to that formula could upset the delicate balance. From when and how they decided to harvest crops, to how much energy to exert on a daily basis, the experiment highlighted the fragility of our planet’s atmosphere on the smallest scale. Every action had a direct consequence.
Once the experiment was complete, friends and relatives reported that the participants returned from isolation with a renewed sense of life and more careful attentiveness to how their footprint affects the world around them. Though the current events of 2020 were unforeseeable, the timing of this film’s release is certainly appropriate.
Seemingly powerful figureheads man most significant leaps in science and technology, pioneers of their field, privileged and bountiful in their knowledge. There’s something comforting about knowing that the nomadic pioneers of Biosphere 2 were not in fact white-coated professors, but instead an ecologically minded avant-garde theatre troupe. Their expedition is one of human aspiration, driven by humble optimism.